Tuesday, September 09, 2008

Publish At Your Peril: Part 1

Inspired by the mighty mom's excellent and very useful post on the whole finding-an-agent ordeal....errrr...process.

Agents are the guardians of the gateway of book publishing. There are no two ways about it. If you don't want to be self-published and are not a vanity press kind of person, you have to find an agent to get a respectable deal. And finding an agent is generally composed of three or four steps, depending on the agent:

1. Research the agent(s) for you in Publisher's Marketplace or online.
2. Submit an initial query letter: this is really just a one-page an intro, a short summary (one paragraph, I know the pain, I do, and a bio). More and more agents now take emailed queries but the older agencies with star clients still prefer snail mail.
3. Depending on the agent (see how crucial research is?), some of them want the first 30 or 50 pages or three chapters along with the initial query. Some don't.
3. If the agent wants to read more s/he will write back asking for the first 30 or 50 pages or 3 or 5 chapters.
4. If they like your work still, they'll ask for the entire manuscript.

And then the agent comes back with a yea or nay. Most of the time it's a nay.

To get an idea of how this really works. Most good agents usually take 1-3% of all authors who submit to them (and they get queried by thousands). You think the hard part is over right? You have an agent. S/he submits your book to HarperCollins or FSG and the good times start rolling. Wrong! Just because you have an agent doesn't mean you have a publisher. Discovering that acceptance rate is an elusive quest but even if it is as high as 50% (I am sure it's not) that's 50% of 1%. Phew!

Okay, now on to my story.

Like every second person in the world (okay, I totally pulled that number out of my ass but it really does seem so) who seems to be writing a book I too completed mine. The Burden of Foreknowledge. In 2005. I workshopped it to within an inch of its life. My group seemed to like it. Heck, I'd even been published before. From academic journals when I was in graduate school, to newspapers, magazines, even pieces in anthologies. For four years I'd written a weekly column and was read by about a million people. If I was an agent I'd want me. Yeah sure!

Off went my queries. Responses flooded my mailbox. Little cards. That said thanks but no thanks. SASEs that came back way too thick (meaning that my submission was safely nestled inside and had just made the trip from one envelope to another), submissions came back with the paper clip indentation unmoved. I came back to earth.

I think I sent off about 30 queries. Three agents requested the full manuscript. One came back with a very gracious no thanks, and listed the good and the bad about the manuscript. A lovely letter but still a no. Then came THE CALL.

Hi, Jawahara, this is so-and-so. We love your novel and would like to represent you.

I was draining pasta in my lovely kitchen in Thousand Oaks, CA. I almost dropped the boiling water on myself.


A respectable agent in the business for a couple of decades. Many sales under her belt. Helloooo publishing contract!

Nope. The agent sent out queries. She sent me updates. Harper said no, so did FSG and Penguin. The acquisitions editor at St. Martins *loved* the book but when she presented it to marketing they said they had enough female Indian authors. Damn! And I hadn't written about mangoes or pickles or arranged marriage or being rescued by an all-American cutie.

Years went by. One day on a whim I decided to query publishers in India who still take usolicited manuscripts. HarperCollins India, Penguin, and Roli Books.

Harper and Roli asked for the complete manuscript. My mail to Penguin disappeared into some deep, dark hole for nothing was acknowledged. My agent continued to submit. We continued to gather the negative responses.

And then, after months of waiting, Roli finally got back to me. I sent along the contract to my agent. I got a respectable royalty rate, which I'll never see because I doubt I'll earn out my advance. Yes...I had an advance, but once my agent took her cut I got about 500 bucks. And I remember being shocked when an author at the LA Times Festival of Books a few years ago said that his first novel had earned him an advance of $3000.

Okay, at one level that is satisfying because *someone* is paying for your work (that's 10 years of thinking about the book, three months of three hours a day writing, three months of editing/workshopping, and almost a year of waiting. what's that like .0000001 cents a word?) and in ruppees $500 is quite a decent amount of money.

I gave Roli the rights to India only, while retaining world-wide, including U.S. rights. Yes, you can do that if you want. My agent continued to send out queries long after the book was finally launched and published.

Then I realized that as an editor myself who had done a stint as an agent for a year I could have negotiated the deal myself. My agent was (and is) very professional and wonderful so this is not to diss her. But since the novel was not selling in the U.S., there was really no need for an agent.

In the meantime I started communicating with B.J. Robbins an L.A.-based agent who was the third agent who'd wanted to see my manuscript. She was sort of interested but since is very professional would only want to see my next work if and when I was no longer in this other relationship. Okay, this is sounding more and more like a steamy love triangle and it is in some way.

So, even though I was mired in the quicksand of my second novel that seemed to be going nowhere...I severed contact with my agent who was gracious and charming and wonderful. I continued to write, without being attached to an agent.

And this is where I am today. In the next instalment I will talk about the rather self-evident lessons learned, what to do and not to do, how I should have researched my agent(s) better, etc.

Btw, here are some invaluable links. I have only bought one Publishers Marketplace in my life in the year 2000 I think. These days I find information about agents online. I tend to prefer the slightly more subversive sites but the official ones are great too. Here are some of my faves:

Preditors and editors: I love this site. It gives info on scams, assessments of agents and other useful info.

Gerard Jones list: No longer being updated, this list of agents (including emails and rejections) was put together by an author going through the agent finding process himself. Funny at times.

Association of authors representatives: Searchable and useful.

Publishers Marketplace: Also searchable, easy to read and well put together.


Mighty Mom said...

Ahh, I see. So this feeling I'm having--like head meeting granite--is perfectly normal. I've called an end to this round of submission. It's time to write--the joyful kind!

Jawahara Saidullah said...

Well, I'd be worried if you weren't having that feeling. It's what separates the amateurs from the pros, the wheat from the chaff, etc. etc. :-)

Can I give you some totally unsolicited advice...well, call it more of an observation.

Do keep submitting. Even if it is just one or two a month. Most of the time the query letter can be fairly generic (apart from the "I see you represent xyz super-duper author, etc.)

It keeps you in the groove. At least I think so. But then there is no sure-fire way and perhaps you have a round strategy in place...in which case, ignore me. Ignore me anyway :-)

Just know that I am making my way through your book and to my virgin eyes (no YA, MG, etc. etc. experience) it looks pretty damned good to me. And well-written. Heck! If I was an agent I'd take you on and if I was a publisher I'd publish you :-)

Happy writing!

Martin M said...

J, You're making me feel really good about the direct deposits I am getting every six months from SAP Press. When I tell you I want to publish a work of fiction, slap me stupid and tell me to get back to work. Thanks, M.

Jawahara said...

Hey Martin:

Welcome! Ah, but writing fiction is like a drug, the rush when a scene comes together right, the excitement at a specific turn of phrase. I guess that makes publishing as painful as withdrawal symptoms, huh? :-)