Don’t Say I Didn’t Warn You

March 2, 2015 | By | 15 Replies More
Leah Ferguson author photo

Leah Ferguson

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.

all the difference 1

Leah Ferguson’s debut novel

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.

Leah Ferguson holds a B.A. from West Chester University, where she studied English Literature and Russian, an an M.A. in teaching from Notre Dame of Maryland University. A former editor and teacher, Leah now writes from home while raising a herd of young people.
An unabashed fan of Notre Dame football, The Smiths, contemporary fiction and (occasionally) running, she lives in Pennsylvania with her husband, three young children, dog and tailless cat. Her debut novel, ALL THE DIFFERENCE, is coming September 1, 2015, from Berkley/Penguin and is available now for pre-order. Please connect with her by visiting her website, blog, or Tumblr, or through Facebook and Twitter.

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Category: Contemporary Women Writers, On Publishing

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  1. Jeanette Goldman says:

    I just read your post and the information you provided is so helpful. I’m on the journey of writing my first novel (currently in the revision stage of the first draft) and I love to read about new writers and their quest to get published. Your advice will certainly become a part of my learning tools. While I work on my novel, I’m also starting up a website and blog. Congratulations on your debut novel – less than 2 weeks away. So exciting!! I wish you continued success.

  2. Thanks for your interesting and helpful post. I wish I had had your advice when I was trying to find an agent – I went for the Big Names and gave up after wasting a lot of time. Since I only began fiction writing in my 70s I felt I was too old to wait any longer (and suffer more of those big disappointments after it was called in and then rejected after I’d given them ‘exclusivity’!) Now I’ve found a publisher who accepts unagented submissions and my first novel, appropriately named ‘Timed Out’, will be published later this year. I’m now wondering what to do with my second novel, and have started a third. I’ll look for the sort of agent you describe, I think.

    • Barbara, congratulations on your debut!! That’s so exciting to hear! I wish you luck on getting the agent you really love–Katie was someone who kept popping up all over my internet research for a reason: She’s good. If you trust your instincts, I think you’re halfway there to finding someone who’s a great match for you. Take care!

  3. Pamela Hart says:

    I’m on my 28th book (it’s also my first as Pamela Hart, because,yes, I did change genres) and the ride never slows down! Having that first copy in your hand – or seeing the book up on Barnes and Noble or Amazon – is always amazing. I wish you good luck for a long, long writing career.

    • Thank you, Pamela! Twenty-eight books is something I can barely fathom–what an accomplishment. Thanks so much for taking the time to drop a line. Now, I’m off to work on Book, um, 2. 😉

  4. Mary Novaria says:

    Thanks for this Leah. I’m in the querying process for a memoir and have been wondering about the pros and cons of new v. seasoned agents. You’ve given me much to think about and I appreciate it. All the best to you with your novel!

    • Oh, I’m so glad I could help in any way, Mary! What’s funny is that when I started doing deeper internet research on that second round, Katie’s name kept popping up everywhere (blog interviews, tweets, etc). She was as “out there” and known as many others–it just took me a while to realize that I had to widen my view a little bit to see that. I wish you the best of luck with your queries–please, please be in touch again with an update.

  5. Really good advice and I wish you a fantastic debut. I had two parenting books published by major houses in the 90s, mostly because I had the world’s greatest agent. (since retired) Since then I didn’t have much to say and didn’t publish again. But having lived through years of a tumultuous period of family dysfunction, I’ve got plenty to say and am stepping back into the publishing waters, but as a self-published author this time. I didn’t even query agents or seek a publishing house. I just wrote, had it edited, hired a cover artist, and decided to go for it, mostly to see how this world works and If I could get my story out there my way. We’ll see. Tales From the Family Crypt: When Aging Parents Die, Sibling Rivalry Lives, hopefully NOT coming soon to a family near you! Looking forward to your book in September. Nothing beats the feeling of seeing your book come to life. Enjoy!

  6. Every time I see something about your book, it makes me excited!

    (Also? This reminded me I am no longer on vacation and need to get back out there with the queries. That part was not as fun as the excited-to-see-something-about-your-book part).

    • Ah, but just think–you’re rested and relaxed and ready to tackle. So, there’s that (not to mention memories of coconut drinks to power you through). There’s no doubt your book is going to find a home–it already has an audience! I just can’t wait to hear the news when it happens.

  7. Cerrissa Kim says:

    I’m so glad you found the right agent. All the people I’ve met that Katie reps rave about her. And congrats on making your dreams come true and for sharing your sage advice with those of us just stepping up to our dreams. I wish you much continued success!

    • Thank you so much, Cerrissa! I really appreciate it. I’m lucky to have Katie, especially knowing now how an agent can make or break a sale (or even a fledgling career) for someone who wants to be traditionally published. It’s nice to have her on my side. 🙂 Thanks for dropping a note!

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