Posts Tagged ‘queries’

The Publishing Process

(as previously noted, I’ve written about this before, so it may seem familiar to some readers)…

First of all, there’s no one path. Successful publishing takes a village. If you have the time, energy and personality for it, you may want to be that village (or hire it). If so, you may choose self-publishing. If you want someone else to do the work of a publisher while you focus on writing, you’ll pursue traditional publishing, which is what I’m going to talk about here, because that’s been my path, both as an agent and as an author.

It all starts with sending out queries, and probably to agents, since most major houses and many mid-sized houses won’t accept unsolicited submissions, which means that manuscripts must be submitted via agents.

You’ve spent all the time honing and perfecting your novel. Don’t do any less for your query letter. It’s not an e-mail to a friend, it’s a professional, business letter, like the cover letter for a resume.

The query letter should be one page, just like any cover letter, and about four paragraphs long:

Opening: For example, I’ve written an epic fantasy novel of approximately 100,000 words entitled XXX.

Summary of the work: Think back cover copy.  This would be a teaser that hits the high points of the plot and the main characters.  Remember that this should intrigue us, so you don’t want to boil it down to the point that it sounds generic.  Let us know how it’s original—not by telling us that its original, but by bringing those unique elements to the fore.

Bio: Tell us a bit about yourself.  Do you have previous publications and/or award nominations? Did you major in or work in a field relevant to your work in any way?  If not, is there something intriguing in your background that might pique our interest?

Close: I look forward to hearing from you.  Many thanks in advance for your time.  (Or something to this effect.)

Note: If you’ve enjoyed the work of any of their authors or benefitted from any interviews or articles they’ve done, you might want to mention this as well—not because they’ll be swayed by flattery, but because they’ll know you’ve really done your research.  If you’ve met an agent or editor and he or she has invited you to submit, this is definitely something you’d want to mention right up front.  Also in that case, you’d write “Requested Material” in the subject line of your submission.

While you’re honing –

#1) Do your research. Here are some great places to go when compiling a list of appropriate agents to query:

The Association of Authors’ Representatives

SFWA (Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America) Author Beware site

Preditors and Editors

If you’re a member of a writers organization like SFWA, MWA, HWA or RWA chances are they have a list of publishers and agents they’ve vetted within their fields.

You might also look in the acknowledgements of authors to whom you would compare yourself.

#2) Continue your research by checking out the publisher or agency’s submission guidelines and then FOLLOW THEM. This is very important. It says that you do your research, you’re willing to put in the work and you’ll behave professionally. Also, it keeps your submission from being caught in someone’s Junk folder and never viewed.

#3) Persevere.  Don’t give up, don’t get discouraged and don’t put all your eggs in one basket.  Get this submission out, then get your mind off it by starting work on something else.  It’s a rare author who sells right out of the gate.

What happens on our end?

Usually the first person to read your work is an intern, an assistant or a submissions coordinator, who will pass the work on to the appropriate person if they think it shows merit. Remember that the business is subjective, so a “no” is really a “not for us” not a “not worthy”. Most often you’ll receive form rejections, since we don’t have time to respond to every submission personally. If we did, we’d never have time to do anything else! So, you may not know exactly why your work was turned down. Here are some frequent reasons for rejection:

  • The material doesn’t fit in with what we represent.
  • The material really isn’t ready yet. Either it’s several drafts away or the person hasn’t yet mastered their craft.
  • It’s got the craft but it’s not firing an agent or editor to champion it (the craft but not the spark).
  • The idea is too a) off-the-wall, b) un-categorizable, c) like something we already represent, or d) commonplace.

-Something about the query leads us to believe that the author will be difficult to work with.  This can manifest in overwhelming ego, negativism, virtriol, condescension or any number of other red flags.

If you do receive a personal rejection, take this as a sign that you’re on the right track. If the comments are especially complimentary and the critique resonates, it’s acceptable to recontact the agent once rewrites are done to find out if he or she would like to reconsider. Unless a project has been pretty significantly revised, however, it’s not advisable to query the same agent with the same work. Although some guidelines will say otherwise (thus it’s always important to check), it’s also not generally acceptable to query multiple agents within the same company. Ditto for editors, although most publishers insist that queries come through an agent, so there’s a good chance that you won’t be submitting directly to editors (at least at major houses).

So, we’ve talked about rejections, but what about acceptance? If the agent likes what he or she has read so far, s/he will request more material, either a partial or full manuscript. Now is your time to shine! It’s fine, perhaps even advisable, to look it over once again, but don’t let too much time pass before sending it out. Now comes the waiting game – the agent’s letter or the guidelines on their website should say how long they take to respond. Feel free to follow up on your submission if that time passes, but always be professional in your correspondence.

And now, the moment you’ve been waiting for – acceptance!

Once an agent offers representation, there are all kinds of questions you can ask to find out if you’ll be a good fit, everything from where they see your work fitting into the market to what revisions they’d suggest.

If you’ve got your work out with others, you can feel free to ask the agent to hold that thought and give the others a chance to read and respond (something like a week), unless, of course, you already know that this first agent is the agent of your dreams, in which case you’d be putting the others through a rush read for nothing. If an editor makes you an offer while your work is on submission to agents, you tell him or her to hold that thought, that you’re talking to a few agents.

Then give those agents a call before you agree to anything. You should be sure the representative you pick is enthusiastic about your work and not just the fact that you come with an offer on the table, but you really don’t want to go about negotiating your first contract on your own.  Among other things, like getting you more advantageous terms, an agent will also help you avoid certain pitfalls, like strict non-compete and broad option clauses.

So, what exactly does an agent do?

  • Know the market. We keep on top of who’s selling what to who, what editors’ tastes are, who’s responsive and who’s not, what the strengths and weaknesses are of the various publishing houses.
  • Keep on top of submissions and responses and keep you in the loop.
  • Negotiate terms: beyond the financial, what territories and what rights are being granted or reserved, like film and television, merchandising, audio, translation… We also go beyond the big picture to haggle out nitty-gritty contract language that could make a big difference down the line.
  • Exploit the reserved rights with the help of film/television and other agents around the world.
  • Advise you on marketing and social media and help you liaise with publicity/marketing people at your publisher.
  • Chase contracts and payments, check over royalty statements, and argue when something doesn’t look right.
  • Play bad cop in general. We deal with conflicts so that you can work smoothly and editorially with your editor.

So remember that village I told you it takes to publish a successful book?

I’ve told you what an agent does. Here are just a few people at a publishing house who will have a hand in your publishing process.

Editor: Editors are indispensable.  They make you look good, catch things that you can’t see, call you on things you’re hoping no one will notice and make suggestions for improvement.  They’re also your point people for dealing with the rest of the company and most of the others on this list, though you will have some direct contact, especially with publicity and a few other peeps.  At some houses, you might have more than one editor.  A different person might do the line edit or continuity edit. Good editors help you achieve your vision rather than impose their own.

Contracts Department: After the editor makes an offer and the author and agent accept, the deal memo is off to the contracts department to draw up the agreement between all parties.  It’s now down to the agent and contracts department to iron out any additional bumps in the road and come up with a mutually acceptable document to be signed and abided by.

Copy Editor: Copyeditors are your last line of defense against typos, misplaced commas, run-on and nonsensical sentences, etc.

Copywriter: You know the teaser copy on the back of paperbacks and inside the cover flap of hardcovers?  You know who writes it?  Well, in some cases it’s the author or editor, but more often, it’s a copywriter.  It’s a special skill.  If you’ve ever tried to sum up your own work in a paragraph or two, you’ll appreciate exactly what I mean.

Art director: The art director hires artists and works with cover designers to  develop the look of your book.

Artist: Artists are commissioned by publishers to create an original piece for a book cover, though often these days, covers are developed from stock photography manipulated for your enjoyment.

Production Department: Estimates the cost of printing and deals directly with the printers and the nitty-gritty details of actually getting books produced.

Publicity: The publicity department at the publisher sends your work out for reviews, does press releases, sets up tours, pitches you for interviews, and various other things that go into publicizing your work.

Marketing: The marketing department arranges and designs ads and other promotion, which comes out of their budget.

Subrights Department: The subsidiary rights department submits work and negotiates deals for any rights external to print publication rights that are granted to the publisher and not exploited in-house.  For example, publishers often hold onto book club rights, and any arrangement for book club publication will be made via the subrights department.

Sales: Sales is in charge of marketing the books to retailers and the ID markets.

Bookstore reps: Individuals who liaise with booksellers within their territories.

So what’s your job as an author?

  • Keep your agent & editor apprised of anything that might be relevant to submissions: new short-fiction sales, contest wins, networking that you’ve done (particularly with editors who’ve expressed interest in your work).
  • Promote your work and be available for promotions, keep your website and other social media up-to-date.
  • Stay professional and don’t argue back with reviewers, bloggers, etc.
  • Write the best damn books you can and hit those deadline!

Without you, we wouldn’t have any business at all.

Submission guidelines have been very much on my mind lately, because I’ve had people tell me in the past how mean it is that we have them. There are too many rules and sites to keep track of; they’re friends with agents and editors on Twitter or Facebook so they ought to be able to just call up or write to the pros personally through those venues and bypass everyone else who’s decided to follow the rules. Guys, it doesn’t work like that. Guidelines exist primarily for two reasons.

1) They weed out those who are not serious about the publishing process. You can’t be bothered to invest the time researching the people you might do business with, but you expect them to invest effort reading and evaluating your work? I’ve equated the query process in the past with the job application process, and it’s very much like that. Your query is your cover letter, your bio and credits your curriculum vitae. Your synopsis and sample material the interview process where we learn whether we will click (in this case with your work). You wouldn’t send a resume to a potential employer’s home or Facebook account…why would you do this with a query? Also, if you can’t follow instructions at this stage, we have to be concerned about what you’ll do when it comes to editorial notes, proof pages, promo, contractual clauses….

2) The material we ask for and the way we ask for it gives us what we need in order to a) track your submission to see that it’s not caught in a spam filter or otherwise ignored, and b) make our decision. I can’t base any decision on a query about querying—the sort of “I have a science fiction novel that I’d like to send your way. May I query you.” note that I get several times a week. That’s just adding an unnecessary step to the process and asks the pro to take time to do your research for you, sending you the guidelines or a link to them. (I did this recently for an aspiring writer who STILL ignored them, which makes me less like to respond to the next person who pre-queries.) Yes, unless agents are closed to submissions, you may query them. Their guidelines are generally readily available on their websites, as are their response times, so if their site says they take a month to two months to respond, don’t requery them after three weeks. It will only give them the sense that you’ll be impatient and difficult to deal with.

Are these rules written in stone?  The answer is that they pretty much are, unless they’re supplanted by alternate instructions.  For instance, if you meet an agent or editor at a conference he or she might give you different or more direct instructions than you’d read on their webpage.  At that time, he or she will probably tell you exactly what material to include in your submission and how it should be sent.  These instructions become your personal submission guidelines.  If you have major publication credits or one of your friends has a professional relationship with the pro you’re approaching and that friend goes to bat for you, you might get to go straight to the head of the line.  Generally, though, when you’re starting out, you don’t want to give the impression that you feel the rules don’t apply to you.  Anyone who approaches publishing with an attitude of entitlement already has a red flag on the play going into the submission process. You may think it will make you stand out from the crowd, but there are good ways and bad ways, and you definitely want to be in the former category.

For more on the query process, see these posts from me on Magical Words:

November 25, 2010 Querying 

January 27, 2011 Querying Blog 2 

February 24, 2011 Querying Blog 3 

BTW, The Knight Agency submission guidelines are available here.

I saw a post recently on Facebook (one of those groups I seem to get automatically subscribed to whether I want to be there or not but decided to check out) where a woman said something like, “My daughter received a rejection saying the agent didn’t connect with the plot.  What the heck does that mean?”  I was so tempted to answer, but that way lies madness.  However, it does make a heck of a blog topic.

Here’s the thing: agents receive hundreds and hundreds of queries a week.  Our job includes reading these to see whether we’d be interested in reading further, to offer a “yes” or a “no” about reviewing additional material.  It’s not to offer critique.  We couldn’t possibly critique, say, 300 queries a week and still agent.  It’s just not possible.  When we do offer a response, it means that we thought your query deserved our going the extra mile.  Does it mean you didn’t deserve the extra mile if we didn’t comment personally?  No, it might mean that we’re busy or that our assistant reviewed it for us and didn’t feel that the query needed our attention, whether because it wasn’t ready yet for prime time, wasn’t in a genre we represent or whathaveyou.  I was surprised at the mother’s what the hell? sort of response to the agent’s comment, since pinpointing the plot as a problem area does say something about the reason that particular query failed for him or her.  It doesn’t mean the next agent won’t connect with the story.  Could it have been more specific—the plot wasn’t terribly original or didn’t have enough suspense or insert reason here?  Sure.  But, critiques are not part of our job description, except for those authors we’re already committed to working with.

When I started out in publishing, I wanted to help everyone.  I was gung ho about giving the most helpful responses I possibly could.  You know what nipped that in the bud?  Most people don’t want to hear it.  The writers who make it want constructive criticism so that they can hone their craft and be all they can be.  However, others just want to hear that they’re the greatest thing since sliced bread.  Anything else, and they’ll argue.  You heard me, argue.  You get more than a few of those and start to decide it’s not worth the grief.  Yes, we get thank-yous as well, and we truly appreciate those.  It’s good to know when we’ve made a difference in someone’s writing or career.  However, once we feel that sense of diminishing returns, well, that gung ho attitude gives way in the face of all the other work we have to get done and which we know is certain to be appreciated.

I’m so tempted to close with “And that’s how Sue sees it” from Glee, but, well, agents already get a bad wrap, and as much as I like Sue Sylvester, I wouldn’t want to be her.  For one thing, I loathe tracksuits.