Finding My Publisher

Advice to the pub-lorn

I’ve read lots of great advice from published authors on how to become published. I’ve collated, amalgamated, and distilled this advice into a plan of action for getting published; and since being published is the reason why so many of us write, it just makes sense to post it here.

Now, it goes without saying that everything begins with quality writing. But right now, I want to regard that as a separate issue, the writing. There’s plenty of time and opportunity to deal with the process of writing and how to make it better, and I’ll be sure to write about that on many an occasion. But what I’m talking about today is something rather ancillary to the writing. 

Let’s say you have an amazing novel. You’ve been slaving over it for months (or perhaps, years, if it’s your first), you’ve edited the draft to within an inch of its life, and your initial lump of word-hackery coal now sparkles like a literary diamond. Now, what do you do with it?

I’m going to assume that your intention is to sell it and be fairly compensated for all of that time and energy you’ve now invested. Good! Read on.

Hooray for Capitalism!

So, naturally, we’re discussing a financial transaction – meaning, a buyer and a seller. You’re the one with the thing to sell, making you the seller, so now we need to find the buyer.

You know the hurdle already. If you’re as yet unpublished (like I am), you’ve been staring at this bleak moment from the very beginning. The crushing reality is that every single day, hundreds of thousands (if not millions) of aspiring writers are submitting many hundreds of pages apiece to any and every literary agent and every editor at every publisher they can find an email address for. Many of these emails won’t even be opened, let alone read. Most of the emails that are opened will be deleted before the second paragraph is looked at. Who knows how many perfectly publishable pieces of work are digitally vaporized sight-unseen?

It seems unfair, but it isn’t. The truth is, the big publishers don’t even look at unsolicited manuscripts anymore, and they haven’t for about ten years. They can’t. There are simply too many. They only look at manuscripts submitted through agents now. But you don’t have an agent, do you? So how do you get one? They’re swamped, too! Nowadays, so many writers are submitting so many manuscripts that not only have publishers stopped accepting unsolicited manuscripts, but so have most agents. And in the last couple of years a new role has surfaced in the industry that acts as an agent for the agent called the ‘literary scout’. They work for agents (or possibly editors) and read through manuscripts by the ton and decide which ones are worth an agent’s time to read, because agents just don’t have the time to read all of the manuscripts sent to them anymore.

So, how in the world are you expected to be able to get your literary gem into the hands of a buyer in a marketplace that looks like this?

The answer?

Research.

Chances are, you’ve done hours upon hours, far too many to count, of research for your novel. You’ve researched far-flung cities, eras of history, animal behaviors, details of fashion, forms of protocol, and who knows what-all to produce your amazing work. What you need to do now is to set those finely-crafted research skills loose upon the very industry you’re trying to break into.

Remember all the times you’ve gone to the bookstore and sought out the bookshelves where your book would one day sit? Of course you do. If you’re like me, it might’ve been yesterday. Go back, and this time take along a notepad and a pen and really look at the books you’re seeing on that shelf where your book should be. Note the books whose covers you’re looking at. You’ll see lots of spines, but focus on the covers. These are the books that are being promoted in your local store. If this store is a national chain, chances are this book is being promoted similarly across the country. Now, starting at one end of the section you’re standing in, pick up each promoted book and note who the publisher of that book is. You’ll want to write down the name of that publisher. Keep going. Write down the name of every publisher who is distributing books to your local store and promoting some of them.

You’ll likely find that, while you’re looking at hundreds of books, you’re seeing the same five to ten publishers over and over. While you’re here, check out books that are particularly similar to yours, and note the authors of those specific books, and who their publishers are.

Now you have some excellent information! On those notepad pages of yours are now the names of several publishing houses that have recently published books like yours and promoting them right now in your local store. You also have the name of an author or three whose works are very much like yours and which were purchased by a smaller number of publishers in particular. This is the data we’re going to focus on first.

Secret Agent Man (or Woman)

That being done, we’re going to ignore the publishers for now, and look at the authors who wrote those books. Now do an internet search for: {Author’s Name} + “agent”. In the search results, you should be able to discover the name of that author’s agent (Do some reading and link-hopping to ensure that the information is current, focusing particularly on the author’s own website). Do this for all of the authors you wrote down on your notepad. This will generate a list of agents that represent the authors whose work is most like yours. This is your hot list.

Next, go to the first agent’s website (or their agency’s website), and look for their rules for submission. When you find them, make absolutely sure that your manuscript submission follows their rules without exception. If there is any deviation, your manuscript will very likely never be read. Don’t do that to yourself! These are the agents or agencies who are most likely to want to represent you, so you’ll want to follow their rules to the letter.

Now, if you’ve followed the rules correctly, you’ll probably receive some sort of reply in the time frame and manner they provide on their site. If they decline, they’ll probably tell you why if you’ve followed their rules for submission. Agents decline for all sorts of reasons that have no reflection upon the quality of your work. Or, maybe this agent had some issues with your work after all. Whatever they tell you, pay attention! You may be reading your rejection letter through heartbroken tears, but what you’re also reading is a roadmap to getting published (or at least represented), so read it thoroughly and take the advice to heart. Besides, you’re already miles ahead of all those many thousands of writers who submit their manuscripts willy-nilly and never hear anything back, so don’t lose heart now, you’re doing great!

Now, taking their advice to heart doesn’t necessarily mean to do every single thing they tell you. You’re the writer, and this is your work. Don’t forget that. You may not agree with everything that agent (or scout) had to say. That’s alright. Just be sure to genuinely consider everything they say.

(A good writing group can be very helpful for seeing past your natural biases here, and you’ll need as many objective opinions as possible at this critical point. So, put on your thickest skin, and bear up. It will be worth it.)

Some agents and agencies will allow you to resubmit your work. The rejection letter they sent will probably indicate this. A rejection letter with recommended changes and an invitation to resubmit is golden, but usually unlikely. That’s alright. Go ahead and make the changes you want to make and submit to the next agent on your list and repeat until you find the agent that wants to represent your work.

But because of the research you’ve done in the bookstore, you’re not looking for that one agent in a thousand that will like your work and want to represent you. You’re looking for the agent in a group of maybe a dozen that will like your work and want to represent you. That’s much greater odds of finding a good match between agent and author. And better yet, you’ll already know that this agent works with the publisher that you’ve already identified as being among the best publishers for your work!

Even though I’m just starting on my new manuscript, I’m already identifying which publishers I want to work with. I’ve narrowed it down to about six to eight. I’ve also identified several authors whose works are most like mine. There are three or four of them. Next, I’ll be looking at their webpages, getting to know them a little bit from their websites, and looking up their agents and their rules for submission. Knowing this at the start is a fairly decent advantage, as I’ll be plugged into the market throughout my initial draft and my first rounds of edits. I’ll have an idea of what those who have the highest likelihood of wanting to publish my work are looking for as I’m writing. I’m not going to deliberately write to their expectations, but I do expect that knowing what they’re looking for will subconsciously affect my writing so that it naturally conforms to their expectations. This should get me past all of those hurdles and get my manuscript in front of the right person – and it should work for you, too.

*Special thanks to David Farland and John Yeoman of The Writer’s Village who provided most of the advice I read on their excellent websites, for free, to anyone who wants to learn a thing or two from published authors. Links to their websites are located on the sidebar to the left and I can’t recommend them highly enough.

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One thought on “Finding My Publisher

  1. Oh, I should add to my note of thanks above that while David Farland and John Yeoman do have tons of excellent free information and advice on their websites, they both also offer more advanced information, coaching, and mentoring through writing courses and seminars which have associated costs. I have not availed myself of these as yet, primarily because I’m broke as a, as a, as a… as a thing that is broke, but when I have the available funds, I am quite eager to.

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