How to Move Your Stories into the World
Several weeks ago (whoops!), I received email from a reader, Michele Kennedy, asking me how to go about placing her novel with a publisher. I told her that I’d love to write a general post on the subject, and she agreed to let me use her name in the posting. So… Here goes – a few thoughts on how to get published, focusing on novels, rather than short fiction or nonfiction, because that’s what I know best.
1. Make sure that your novel is the absolute best writing you can manage. The story needs to be complete (no sections that you’re going to flesh out later, no sections where you know the plot is convoluted, but you trust that some expert will help you straighten things out later.) The writing needs to be polished (no notes to use your thesaurus later, no suggestions-to-self to delete the poetry of William Blake and add your own prophetic statements.) I find it useful to let the manuscript (“ms”) set for a few days/weeks/months and read it with fresh eyes (working on something else in the interim.) I also find it useful to read the ms out loud – every single word – to hear where I’ve repeated thoughts, constructs, language.
2. Make sure that your ms is in the best physical form that you can manage. There are tons of style sheets out on the Web, some for specific publishers. In general, your work should be printed from a computer on a printer that had plenty of toner (I’m sure there’s someone out there still using a typewriter – make sure you start with a fresh ribbon), on one side of the paper, leaving ample (minimum 1″) margins, double-spaced, in a plain font. (Many editors still prefer Courier; others are willing to accept Times New Roman, and a very, very few – including my current editor – prefer more exotic fonts like Arial.) I don’t think there has ever been an editor born who prefers to read a ms in Comic Sans, or Old English, or any of the beautiful fonts you use for your holiday letters.
3. Search for an agent. Yes, I know that generations of authors were published without agents. Yes, I know that agents take 15%. Yes, I know that agents can be more difficult to find than editors/publishers. But this is 2007. Publishers have consolidated, so that you CAN’T send your ms to 37 different publishers before it finds its happy, best-selling home. Your agent will more than earn his/her 15% by negotiating your publishing contract. I speak as a (formerly) practicing lawyer – unless you have worked as an attorney specializing in publishing law, you’ll need a trained professional to help you parse your contract. Besides, an agent will know which publishers will give on which terms.
4. Don’t sign with a bad agent. Yeah, I know. How can you know who the good ones are? How can you weed out the bad ones. First, check publications that announce sales (Locus, in the SF field; Publisher’s Lunch, in general, Publisher’s Weekly.) Your library is your friend, if your pocketbook is light. See which agents are selling in your field. Also, check the acknowledgments pages for books that are similar to yours – many authors tip their hat to their agents. Use websites – Preditors and Editors and Agentquery are two that provide extensive information about the good, the bad, and the ugly. Remember: You should NEVER pay an agent to represent you. If an agent can make a living off your representation fee, then s/he has no incentive to sell your work. A good agent will NEVER agree to reconsider your work if and only if you work with a specific book doctor or private editor. (A good agent, might, however, recommend that you consult with a trained professional – and s/he might have a list of professional editors for you to consider.) Some good agents (and some bad agents) offer contracts, generally for a period of one year. Just because your agent offers a contract, s/he isn’t good or bad. (I’m on a handshake arrangement with my agent, after our contract expired one day before he made my first sale.)
5. Listen to your agent. If s/he recommends making edits, consider those recommendations very, very seriously. The greatest mistakes in my career have come from not paying adequate attention to my agent’s advice. You’re paying this person for his/her expertise; don’t walk away from that vast store of knowledge.
6. Let your agent do his/her job. Most agents don’t report back every single time they submit a ms. Many agents don’t report back every time they receive a rejection letter. Some agents will not take phone calls (except in career-emergency situations); they prefer to correspond by email. Some agents prefer phone conversations with current clients. (No agent wants to talk to you on the phone if you are not already in a business relationship.) If you know that you need progress reports every day/week/month, tell your agent when you first start to work together. (And if you need progress reports every day or week, consider another creative field – you’re not going to get feedback that often in the writing field.
7. While you’re waiting for your agent to sell your work, learn what you can about the publishing field. Consider reading other agents’ blogs – Miss Snark, Pubrants,
, here on LJ. Consider reading editors’ blogs –
, here on LJ, others that you find. Haunt bookstores, studying what’s on the shelf, what’s new, what’s being hyped (by the stores and by the publishers.) Read, read, read.
8. Start writing your next novel. In a perfect case (and I don’t know anyone who has enjoyed this “perfection”), you can sign an agent in a month, and your agent can land a publisher in another month. (No, don’t count on that. Think in terms of months – plural – or a year.) Your editor is likely to ask, right off the bat, does Author have anything else? Make sure that your agent can answer yes. Now, be intelligent about what you start writing next. It doesn’t do you a lot of good to have seven novels set in the fantasy forest world of R’tel’K, if you’re not able to sell the first one. But other fantasy novels? Or other directions to take your main characters?
So – there you have it. My thoughts on how to move toward publication. Only my thoughts – others will certainly have different opinions. Anyone? Care to chime in?
Mindy, enjoying the time to write up entries like this…