A roundup of resources and a big dose of encouragement for new writers (part 2)
Editor’s note: I planned on publishing this last week, but the timing felt off after the election results came in. While it still feels “too soon” to talk about anything else, I decided to go ahead and publish this today. We need artists and stories more than ever in these coming years.
Welcome to the second installment of my big dose of encouragement and resources for new writers. Part 1 covered writing your first book. Part 2 is all all about if you’ve decided you want to publish your book (but remember, it’s okay if you decide that’s not for you).
Funny thing happened between Part 1 and Part 2 of this post. I signed with a literary agent, the amazing Caitie Flum of Liza Dawson Associates, which makes my advice at least 43% more legit.
If you wrote a book, and you want it to be published.
The first thing you have to decide is if you want to self publish your book or if you want to pursue traditional publication.
(Important – make sure you research before you self publish. Once a book is self published it’s published, and only in rare situations does a self published book end up going on to be traditionally published. That’s not a value judgement, just know what you want.)
I don’t know much about self publishing; this is an area where I haven’t done quite as much reading. I know it’s a ton of work. I know you get control over your book on a whole different level. I’ve watched self publishing greatly improve the romance genre, where traditional publishing has for the most part stayed very white and very straight. Rebekah Weatherspoon and Feminista Jones are two writers who come to mind that are doing very cool things with self-publishing. So is Jenny Trout.
If you want to be traditionally published, meaning you dream of seeing your book on the shelf in a Barnes and Noble, this is the typical path to publication (extremely simplified):
You write a book.
You perfect a book.
You write a query (a sexier version of a business letter) letter describing your book and send it to literary agents (more details are below). For most people, this is the biggest hurdle to overcome. This is because of queries sent to literary agents only .01 – 2% of those only go on to become clients.
Literary agents read it (for free – they never charge, and they shouldn’t be pitching you other services, either) and decide if they want to read your book. If they read your book, and think it’s the best thing ever, they offer you representation.
You sign a contract with a literary agent, and they come up with a plan to submit your book to editors at different publishing houses. You agree to pay the literary agent 15% (standard) of what you make if your book sells.
One of the editors loves your book. The take it to a board or an acquisition group and they decide if your book will sell and make the publisher money. If they decide it will, they offer you a deal and a contract. Your agent negotiates the contract to try to get you the best deal possible, which is about far more than just an advance (the money you are paid upfront).
You sign the contract. You sell your book.
In two-ish years you go take a selfie with your book on the shelves in a bookstore.
Resources for writing the query letter:
Query Shark – if you want to get a literary agent you can consider the query your god, and query shark your bible. Literary agent extraordinaire Janet Reid breaks down quires submitted anonymously, highlighting what works (and more often, what doesn’t). She posts subsequent revisions until the author gets it right, or until they decide to move on to something else. When I first started reading query shark. there were 220-ish entries. I took notes as I read through every entry. I might have still have a lot to learn about this whole writing thing, but I can write a hell of a query letter, thanks to Query Shark and lots (and lots and lots) of practice.
Writer Writer Pants on Fire – author Mindy McGinnis features weekly query critiques (The Saturday Slash), similar to Query Shark, breaking down what words and what doesn’t.
There are also these mostly awful things called the synopsis. Some agents want these with the query letters – some do not. They can be one page or five pages. Unlike the query, which is meant to entice an agent to read more (i.e. does not reveal the end), a synopsis gives a summary of the entire book.
Resources for finding agents to query:
Query Tracker – here you can look up specific literary agents and see what their response time is like, what their form rejections read like, etc. Be warned that anyone can post most anything, so you need to take what you read with a grain of salt. The best place to learn about submission guidelines, an agent’s current email address, if the agent is currently accepting queries, etc., is always directly on the literary agent’s agency website.
Preditors and Editors and Absolute Write – not all literary agents are created equal, and unfortunately there are shady agents and other nefarious individuals out there looking to exploit an author’s eagerness to see their name in print. While both of these websites are not the most user friendly, you can search the names of professionals you are considering working with and look for any potential red flags (a few of these include: third parties that offer to contact literary agents on your behalf, agents that charge a reading fee …)
Manuscript Wishlist – this is the brainchild of agent Jessica S. Agents and editors share not just what they are looking for (Young Adult); they get really specific (I’m looking for stories about glee clubs, high school theatre arts groups, and retellings of classic fairy tales set at band camp). It’s kind of like a matchmaking service – you get to see if there is an agent out there who just happens to be looking for the very book you have written.
Resources for understanding the publishing business:
Janet Reid’s blog – Not to be confused with Query Shark (above), this is Janet’s blog where she talks all things publishing. I won’t say this is the only blog you need, as there are so many wonderful people out there writing important and useful things about publishing. But if you were only to read one blog about the business of publishing, I’d say make it this one. Topics covered range from how to know when you’re supposed to get paid, the ins and outs of agency agreements, word count standards by genre, book covers … trust me. Check it out.
Kameron Hurley’s blog is another place every writer should visit. There is no sugar coating of the ups and downs of publishing, and she shares comprehensive breakdowns of how much of her income comes from writing. Writers sometimes fall prey to the idea that they shouldn’t have to worry about the business side. Don’t buy into that. You deserve to be paid for your art, and you should know what that means. Also check out her writing on noncompete clauses and rights grabs.
Jennifer Represents is now retired, but the archives are still there. Literary agents still reference this post on word counts all the time when questions come up about standard word counts in various genres. And if reading that post leaves you confused about the multitude of genres out there, you can read this handy genre glossary.
Things to remember:
I assume you didn’t first put a pen to paper because you dreamed of a book deal. Don’t get so focused on getting published that you lose the joy of writing.
Don’t get so wrapped up wrapped up reading about queries and word counts and contract terms that you forget the one thing that matters above all else – a good book.
Remember that publishing is a business, an institution. And that like all institutions it is flawed and it discriminates. Some of the roadblocks you encounter will be for really shitty reasons you can’t control.
Perseverance will always be your sharpest weapon.
And most of all, remember what I said in Part 1. The world needs your story. We need it now more than ever.