When people ask me what I do and I reply that I am a writer, one of three things are generally said:
- “Wow, that’s cool.”
- “OMG, I have the best idea for a story! You should totally turn what happened to me/my sister/brother/friend/mom/grandmother/dog/teacher/neighbor/ into a novel!”
- “I’m a writer, too! How did you get published?”
To this last question, I always say that getting published was and continues to be probably the hardest part of being a writer. So let’s just put that on the table now, shall we? You spend years writing your manuscript. You slave over it. You rewrite it a hundred times and you second guess every word. You are both proud to and totally humiliated over the notion of having a friend or loved one read it. You want them to love it. You are sure they will hate it. You think you are a pretty good writer and you are also pretty sure you might be crap. Sometimes you read a book and wonder how the hell someone actually managed to get it into a bookstore. Other times you read a book and it is so good you want to give up because you know you will never, ever come close to that kind of genius. Finally, your book is done. Get ready, because that was the easy part.
There are many people who self-publish. There are even a select few who self-publish and make money. An example of this is the oh-so popular 50 Shades Of Grey series. I think it’s important to note, however, that Dominatrix What’s-Her-Name who wrote those books was part of a very large online community of fan fiction writers. She had a system of sorts to generate heat and buzz around her work, which helped her get noticed. She also may or may not have made a deal with the devil, but that remains to be seen.
The reality is, if you want a chance to actually sell your book to both publishers and consumers, you need an agent. So how does one go about getting an agent? The answer is timing, luck and persistence. Some agents – most, actually – accept query letters. This is a letter which briefly introduces yourself and a synopsis of your book. If the agent is intrigued, then you may have the opportunity to send in 50 pages of your manuscript. Let me warn you, though – the chances of this happening are slim to none. It happens, sure, but in today’s shrinking literary economy, it happens less and less.
The first thing you want to do is narrow down the agents to the ones you think might be into your work. Look at the ‘Acknowledgments’ section of 20 (contemporary) books you feel are similar in tone and vibe to your own work. The authors will always thank their agents. From here, you can garner a list of names to send your letters to and determine who might be receptive to your style. You also might want to email blast your favorite authors and beg them for an introduction. If you email the author, I would hope that you might have some of your work already available for them to read online or elsewhere.
Having your own blog or writing for a well known blog (*author clears her throat*) is a great way to get this kind of presence established. It may be a question of submitting dozens of articles to multiple online sites, but at least you would have physical evidence that people are indeed liking and reading your work.
There are a couple of other ways to get an agent. The first is going to as many writers conventions as you can. There are often agents milling about, trying to find new writers or looking after writers they represent who are trying to get some fan buzz. The second way is through hiring a freelance editor. Here is something you probably don’t know about getting published: it ain’t cheap.
There are many professional editors out there who have great connections to agents and who, for a fee, will edit your manuscript. Of course, I feel the need to warn you that if you go this route, you MUST do your research and make sure that the person is legit. Here’s the thing, though – even after you get an agent, chances are that they will ask you to get your work looked over by an editor. This will run you anywhere from $2,000 – $10,000. Why do they do this? They do this because your manuscript has to be tight. It has to be perfect before they will consider taking it to a publisher. Does this sound ridiculous to you? It did to me, too. However, there is sound reasoning behind this practice. An agent is in the business of selling, not necessarily editing. They might recognize potential, but more often than not, they will need a professional editor to whip it into shape.
If you have any thoughts that there is a benevolent editor at a publishing house who’s dying to get a crack at your hidden gem of a book, you can think again. They don’t have the resources to groom and refine a piece of work. Of course,
an editor (let’s call them publishers to eliminate confusion) a publisher will copy edit for typos and might make a few suggestions here and there, but prepare yourself. Once your agent submits your manuscript, there is an expectation that it is pretty much ready to be published. There is simply too much competition out there and the book business model of bookstores and book tours is practically prehistoric at this point. People aren’t going to brick and mortar stores to buy their books. They buy them online and this evolution is happening faster than publishers can course correct. The sheer volume of material available has assured that publishers have less and less time to devote to a single author. So you can get an editor now or later, but you will need one and you will most likely have to pay for it yourself (unless you have a very good friend who excels in this kind of thing and is willing to this service for free).
So this is the final piece of advice I can offer you: do not be precious about your words. You are often too close to your own work to determine its value. If you are going to offer up your writing to the public at large, make sure you are ready to put on your thickest skin. You will be rejected by agents and publishers. Your editor(s) will pull apart each chapter and ask you to reassemble it with a different headspace. You will be told that something doesn’t work but not given any clue as to how to fix it. And, IF you are lucky enough after all of this heartache to get published and dumb enough to read any of your reviews, you are doomed. If you accept the good ones, then you must also accept the bad. People are mean. They will rip you to shreds and when they do, it becomes near impossible to remember the chorus of others who sing your praises.
That said, there is still nothing better in all the world than a rainy day and a great book. So don’t give up!
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