Sunday, September 21, 2008

Publish At Your Peril (Part Deux)

You know the build-up. The inevitable rounds of emails, snail mail submissions, the thick packets, keeping the postal service going with the sheer volume of mail you send? TO AGENTS? I know people who've sent our 100's of queries. They keep at it, month after month, sometimes year after year. If persistence were a prerequisite of success there names would be household ones.

So, eventually, when after the 30th query I got THE PHONECALL I wrote about in part 1, you can't blame me. The way this whole process is set up to make you believe that landing an agent should lead to that oh-so blissful feeling of acceptance, the Sally Field like exuberance (you like me, you really like me)is like some kind of prize. The pot of gold at the end of a rainbow. The happy ending.

Nope. The truth is that this landing an agent is the beginning. That's where you really begin on your publication journey. There's writing and there's the publishing. Writing ends at your last successful draft, publishing begins when you find an agent. So take a deep breath, revel in the knowledge that an experienced publishing professional likes your work, breathe in that sweet scent of validation...and then get over yourself. Nothing has really happened. Yet.

The other thing no one tells you...or they tell you and you think to yourself, that's not me, won't happen to me...that you might have bypassed the slush pile but a publishing contract is not a given. More often than not even agented manuscripts never make it into publication. And more often than not, that manuscript is yours.

The way the whole thing is set up once you get that call, especially if you've been trying forever, you want to collapse into a thankful heap at your agent's feet. But the agent is not doing you a favor. In fact, they are your agent, your employee, when you sell they make money. Keep that central fact in mind.

I didn't remember that. I felt diffident asking my agent to send me updates. I didn't want to bother her. What if I irritate her and she drops me? Horrors! What will I do then? I should have trusted my instincts. She needs me as much as I need her. I didn't have to live in her pocket but I could have been more assertive on my own behalf.

Remember this. Your agent has dozens of manuscripts s/he's sending out to publishers at any given time. You only have one. Yours. You have to be your own advocate. Ask to see the list of publishers submissions go to. Ask for a periodic update on yays and nays. Ask to see the actual refusals. Yes, there are agents who have been known to not submit but to tell the writer about all the publishers who have rejected the manuscript when the publisher never even saw your book. It's true.

Now agents do belong to the very reputable AAR but there really is *no* governing body overseeing how they operate. Yes, the web has made it easier for people to disseminate information about scam agents, bad agents, and yes, even good ones. But that's just folks like you and me. There is no regulation. And perhaps there shouldn't be.

I find agenting itself a rather artificial barrier between reader and book creators but that ship has sailed. Putting a quasi-governmental body in place would make it even worse.

But that does mean that we as writers wanting to be published need to change our mind-set. *We* are the reason publishers, agents, and editors stay in business. We make them money. Sometimes I find that agents and publishers forget that. Or at least they try to downplay this to us writers who must come across as deer caught in the headlights.

In an ideal world they would be the ones querying us...please let us publish you...please. But we live in this world and we owe it to ourselves and to our fellow-writers to be conscientious about our role in this continuum that begins with us and ends when someone plonks down money to read what we wrote. Everyone else in between including agents are just links in a chain.

So this is what we should do to remain in control of the process and not let others drive us. We might or might not get published in book form. We might not become AUTHORS. But, we will (I know I will) always be WRITERS. To me that is the most important part. I write. I am a writer. I am an author when someone pays me money to print my words and put them out there. Being an author, to me, is a commercial thing. Being a writer is sublime and spiritual and real. However, I don't believe anyone can teach you to be writer. So this list is really about being an author.

1. Never lose sight of the reason(s) for which you write. Examine them thoroughly and don't delude yourself.

2. If your number one reason is not because you love to write (or some derivation of that sentiment) but that you want to be published then focus on that. Work on being the best damn author there is even if you are not the best writer in the world.

3. Get yourself published. My first short story was published in a national magazine when I was 13. I've tried to have at least 1-2 publications every year. That's not much and I am the lazy queen of procrastination. You can get even more publications. Query the hell out of every publication you can, submit to whichever journal takes submissions, get your name out there.

4. Remember, it's very rare that a book publisher will sign you on if you've never had anything published anywhere. So work on this. They want to know you have chops and range, and that you are persistent, and that you continue writing.Agents and publishers really do look at these things. Your query is not just your book, it's also you. How saleable are you? Are you at all known? Do you bring readers with you? Why else do you think Nicole Ritchie got a novel published? Trust me, she ain't no Jhumpa Lahiri. And Pamela Anderson? Yes, she too wrote a novel and got it published 'Nuff said.

You don't need silicone devotees but if you were published somewhere you have a better chance of getting a book contract.

5.If you are lucky enough to get an agent (a good one) don't harrass them but do set up an agreed-upon interval (every two weeks, once a month, etc.) where they either send you an update email or you talk on the phone. Be polite but let them know unequivocally that you will be a tireless advocate for yourself. If the agent is not right for you, get out of the contract. You will know when/if the time is right....or wrong. Don't be afraid of taking this step. Be true to yourself and to your work.

6. Be ready to make changes that your agent and/or editor asks you to make. Now if the change is so drastic that it changes your work you need to decide whether you are an author or a writer. Which persona would make those changes?

7. Create your own marketing plan. Remember this. Your new book gets about 3 months in the bookstore and 3 months of promotion. After that it departs to make room for newcomers. Unless, of course, the sales are so brisk that the 2-3 copies per store fly off the shelf. In which case the stores put a replenishment cycle in place. So...apart from what the publisher does (for you and for the *new* Dan Brown/Stephen King/Salman Rushdie...where do you think they will focus?) figure out what you will do. This can include a book launch party with some media, interviews and stories in local, regional or national media. Postcards and posters, radio interviews. More importantly, mine your contacts to see how you can get into said media.

8. A website or a blog is invaluable. What you're looking for is a following. Create yourself as an online entity, people who will *always* buy your new book.

So, here are my 8 points to becoming an author and navigating your way through the publishing minefield.

Add your own. Please share your take with me...and with my 1.5 readers ;-)


C. said...

I sooo feel your pain. Sadly, thievery seems to be all too common subtext in this city. At least you can keep the same number, just need to get a new SIM card for like 40 CHF, oh plus the &*%%$# 300 CHF for a new phone.

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