Friday, March 25, 2005

Mail Bag: Getting Picked Up

And not in a bar. Lord knows I can't help you there. Can't give away all my secrets.

But I can, from a first-novelist perspective, share my thoughts on getting picked up by an agent or a publisher. These are just opinions, based on my taking fiction classes and developing my platform of writer friends and people who helped me along the way. And I've come a long way from my first fiction class in 2001. But let me preface my answer by saying: there is no secret, no formula, no way to figure this out. We're all guessing, hoping, writing, and praying...

So T asks: What's the secret to getting your book picked up by a publisher?

T, there is no secret or science to getting your finished manuscript represented by a literary agent or picked up by a major publisher. But this is what I've learned in the past four years since taking my fiction writing dreams seriously...

1. Write a good book. (And since you're self-published-- T self-published his debut novel this year), keep good records of your sales numbers so that when you query an agent or publisher, you have your sales to back you up. Sales numbers, plus a good story and good writing count. What's a query? That's a professional letter you write to an agent or publisher briefly summarizing your novel and asking if they'd consider reading it.)

1a. Good is subjective. One agent may hate your work. Another will love your work. Thirty publishers may say no, but one may say yes. It's not just only good writing. It's what the agent or editor feel enthusiastic about. It's like dating in a way. Everyone's looking for the right match for a successful relationship. So what may be a good book to some, might be a terrible book to someone else. There is no science or magic to how this thing works.

2. Work on your craft. (Join some writers workshop groups, take a few classes at
UCLA Extension Writers Program if you're in L.A. or go your local university's extension program. Many authors will teach workshops in their homes or the local coffeehouse. Or go for broke. Go for the MFA in Creative/Fiction Writing. Don't just do free things. Invest in your skills and craft every now and then. But do anything to get you in a circle of other writers who can give you objective feedback; friends and family don't count to me for critiques on writing style and craft unless they're writers... and most are not. But not all fellow writers and classmates are helpful. Just like office politics, there can be classmate or writer group politics. Find your allies, pick your battles, but try to keep them in a writer circle if possible. Develop your relationship with your workshop or class leader, too. They often can, and will, introduce you to other people who can help you! Become the teacher's pet and star student.)

3. Research agents. (Now, there are legitimate agents and those who are shady. Real agents don't charge you anything to read your material or to represent you. Real agents make their money after they sell your project to a publisher, and then it should be no more than 15-20% of your sale amount. Agents only take on work they're enthusiastic about or feel they can sell. therefore, do not take rejection personally. These are business decisions, not critiques on your writing skills or story or your being -- unless there are no writing skills or story apparent in what you send... then you go back to step #2. There are hundreds of literary agents out there. Look for one certified by
AAR preferably or at least on their way to being certified. Look for client lists, recent books sold, etc... Or read the thank you's at the front of books you like. Most authors thank their agents. Google them.)

4. Wait, wait, be patient, and wait some more. (After you've written your professional query letter -- i.e. no misspellings, no slang, no cutesy fancy paper, no sob stories, no chicken-grease stains, no I'm-the-next-Terry McMillan-Gish Jen-Sherman Alexie-comparisons -- just wait. Agents get hundreds of query letters aweek. That's on top of the manuscripts they've requested. It could take weeks, months, or a year to hear back. Now some people think it's wrong to send out multiple query letters at once. With all the waiting you'll be doing, you'd be foolish not to. Make your A-list, B-list, and C-list of agents. Send the letters out a dozen at a time or so. Wait. If you hear nothing, say in two months, send out more. If an agent asks to see your material, send it right away. Wait some more. Maybe hold off on sending new queries until you hear something. But the moment an agent says yes, that s/he wants to represent you, you have to notify the other agents you've gained representation. Especially if other agents have your manuscript and are reading it. That would be like getting married, but being engaged to someone else. Not cool.)

5. Unless... (If your project is the hot one of the moment, you could be picked up right away by an agent and a publisher... of course there will be revisions, changes requested, and other things you may not have planned on. since they're in the business of publishing, listen to them. they know what they're doing. More than likely, you'll be waiting. Use this time to work on your craft. Write some short stories. Start a new novel. Do not spend money you think you'll be getting in an advance if your novel sells. Not smart. Just maintain your regular life and keep writing and waiting. But if you're the hot one on the dance floor, you may not be waiting for long!!! Like clubs and the single boy, you just never know if it's your night or not... hmmm)

6. Unless... part two. (Writers of color, LGBT writers, West Coast writers, and other non-majority groups may have an extra challenging time. I use may lightly. Some writers on West Coast say the East Coast-driven publishing industry doesn't get the diversity, mixture of cultures and languages,and general lifestyle of West Coast writers' stories. There are not many agents, editors, publishers of color in the major publication houses and agencies, so... the perception goes, people who are not like you may not get your story.
But don't get discouraged because there are people willing to help. If you do your research, you'll find an agent who GETS you. Your agent will find a publisher or editor who GETS you. It's all about research and finding the right match and combination. But when the iron stikes, it's on... And good writing, once again, and a good story don't hurt.)

I'm no expert. I can only share based on what I've learned in the past years I've dipped into the publishing pool. I started DOWN FOR WHATEVER as a short story in my UCLA Beginning Fiction class taught by Kerry Madden. Less than four years later, but many rejections and revisions later, it'll be out in July 2005 on Kensington Books. It can happen.

With hard work, developing craft and skills, building your platform, and staying disciplined, anything can happen... but even still, being published once is no guarantee that you'll be picked up or published again. That, my friends, is a whole 'nother story and a whole 'nother process. A writer's life is never done and we all end up back at square one at some point in our careers, I've heard.


Tayari said...

Hi Fred! I love reading your blog.

I have some thoughts about the "secret" to getting published. I don't really think there is one. Often people give me samples of their work and ask me if I think it is publishible. No matter WHAT my opinion of the work is, I have to say I DON'T KNOW.

I know people who really good manuscripts that get snapped up right away and people with good ms that can't buy a publisher's attention.

And the opposite is true as well. Some people write CRAPPY books and can't get them published and other writers of crappy books are laughing all the way to the bank.

Really, Fred. I can't figure it out!


Frederick Smith said...

Exacly. I can't figure it out either, and somehow writer friends who are wanting/hoping to be published keep asking me. There really is no magic formula at all.

Rod said...

Thanks much for the play-by-play. Certainly helps to see the do's and don'ts. Over the weekend, it's more work on the ms. Thanks.

Alex said...

Great advice, it's like Cinderella, “my prince will come.” For me as a hopeful author. I can only do the research and beat on doors, loudly. Thanks for the advice.