Okay, ladies: It’s almost springtime. You’ve spent the winter tightening up that manuscript, writing the (gulp!) first 30 drafts of your query letter, and you’re ready to hit “send.” It’s Agent Time. And you, fellow writer, are on your way to getting published.
No, no, wait. Not yet. DO NOT SEND THAT LETTER. Read this first, okay? Because there exist some harsh realities for someone just breaking into the literary world, and it might be a good idea to learn the rules from somebody who’s pretty much broken every one of them.
Shall we get started?
1. Here’s the deal: I know your book is THE BOOK. It isn’t just a novel, it’s the Great American Novel. I know, because I wrote one, too—until I found out I didn’t. Even if you get your first novel published (wahoo!), that’s not good enough in the publishing world. Donald Maass himself told me this, right after I flubbed a pitch for my second novel while sitting in his office last summer.
Even if your first book sells, it’s your third book that a career makes. With books one and two, you’re just getting your name out there. Yeah, I know. It hurt me to hear it, too.
2. Your book will be your baby. And you don’t want anyone telling you that you have an ugly baby. But they will. The agents that reject you will. The agent that offers to represent you might even do it, too. But you must, above all things, remember this: YOU WANT TO SELL YOUR BABY. And if you happen to land a good agent who knows what she’s doing and has a good record, keep an open mind and listen to her. She’s making a career out of selling babies. Publishing is a business, above all, with talk of genre and target audience and marketing.
You will love your book, but your book also needs to work in the marketplace if you want to publish it traditionally. Rough, but true.
3. Don’t play out of your league when it comes to finding an agent. When I first started querying, I was only submitting to The Names—you know, the bigwigs who have assistants who have assistants to sort through their slush piles. It was naive, and wasted me a ton a time. Thankfully, on the second round, I got smart. I hopped onto social media, cruised the internet, and I listened more than I talked.
I sought out an agency that was, yes, reputable and respected (yay for Donald Maass Literary Agency!). And I knew that my ideal agent would be someone relatively new to the business, someone hungry for success, and someone who was actively selling books. Score one Katie Shea Boutillier, with DMLA. She was the absolute perfect fit for me—I knew it when I queried her (she wanted edgy books, and while mine wasn’t edgy, it was high concept, and I suspected Katie might be willing to take a chance) and I knew it after I signed with her.
If you’re a rookie in this business, you have to go with a scout who’s intent on proving herself. Find someone smart. Someone ambitious. And find someone with a good support system of other agents around her. And then send that query her way.
4. As my daughter learned last year in kindergarten, you get what you get and you don’t get upset. You’re a newbie in this business. You might find out that the novel you wrote is in an entirely different genre than you thought. You might discover that your book will be published in trade paperback, and not the hardcover you’d dreamed of.
You will learn that advances and contracts will probably not buy you a beach house, but might comfortably pay for your groceries for a couple of months. You might learn that the path people see for you isn’t the one you hoped to carve. Don’t worry. You’ll figure it out.
I’ve been told that if I want to ever switch genres once “established,” I might have to publish under a pen name. It’s business. It’s how it works.
5. Once you get the deal, the work multiplies. So, you’ve sold a novel. A novel! That’s amazing. Congratulations. Now, get back to work. You have a book proposal to write, and chapters to polish, and emailing and author photos and marketing and social media to stay on top of. The work gets workier once you have that pub deal. It, for a while, will become less about the writing, and more about the selling.
Remember that part I mentioned about business? Refer back to that as you need. It’s a tricky one to get a creative brain around.
So, is the dream worth all the trouble? I’m only in the middle of the journey with my first novel, here—it comes out next September—but so far? Absolutely. It’s been a wild ride, and frankly, one I didn’t quite believe I was on until the day I pulled up Barnes and Noble on a whim and saw my book—the cover, my name!—up for pre-order. They’re called dreams for a reason, you guys. And also, callings. And they’re not meant to be ignored. So go get ‘em, little writer. The title “author” will look good on you.
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