$700 on the publishing industry roulette wheel...
May 2, 2010 1:54 PM   Subscribe

I have written a literary science fiction novel. I am confident that it is salable, but I am so far having difficulty finding an agent. I am considering going to the Backspace Writer's Conference but am uncertain as to whether the $700 cost would be a good investment.

So, I completed the third and final draft of my novel in early February. It's 120,000 words long and in the same vein as "Slaughterhouse Five" or "The Time Traveler's Wife." I think it would be equally at home on the science fiction rack or the one simply labeled 'literature.'

I am confident in my writing and am very serious about pursuing a career as a writer.

I've written a query letter and a synopsis. I less impressed with them than I am with the novel, but I still think they're pretty good. I've sent queries out to twenty agents so far, in four rounds of five starting mid-february. I have received rejections from eight of those(two of which requested partial manuscripts before declining), have partials out currently to three, and have not heard back from the other nine.

I was hoping to have generated more interest by now, but I am not disheartened. I am, however, wondering what else I should be doing. One thing that successful writers I have spoken with have mentioned is the possibility of going to conferences to get some face time with agents and publishers.

I live in Philadelphia, which means New York is relatively convenient. Coming up at the end of May is the Backspace Writer's Conference. The thing is that registration is $500, and I figure it will probably cost me another $200 in travel/lodging.

If I were wealthy, I would just go and hope for the best. But I'm not wealthy, and I have a two month old daughter. $700 is an amount of money I can rustle up, but it's not an insignificant sum to me right now. So I'm having difficulty determining whether this would be a good investment or a frivolous expenditure.

So, should I go? And if I do go, how do I make the most of it? And if I don't go, is there anything else I should be doing? Some better financial investment I could make in my career? Or do I just keep sending out queries and working on the next book?
posted by 256 to Writing & Language (12 answers total) 15 users marked this as a favorite
I've heard good things about that conference, and most of the agents who will be there.

However, it's not clear if you've gotten gratis feedback from other writers. Have you checked out the forums at querytracker? Absolute write? Have you shared your manuscript with writing groups or peers or colleagues? Because I'd go any of those routes before paying for the conference.

Also, if you're getting partial requests, I suspect your query isn't as terrible as you might think.

Though I'm at the same stage as you (we even started querying around the same time!), I'd be glad to give you some feedback. Drop me a MeMail or email if you'd be interested.

So, I completed the third and final draft of my novel in early February. It's 120,000 words long and in the same vein as "Slaughterhouse Five" or "The Time Traveler's Wife." I think it would be equally at home on the science fiction rack or the one simply labeled 'literature.'

Incidentally, I can't help but think that Slaughterhouse Five and The Time Traveler's Wife are a world apart--so disparate that it's a befuddling comparison, and probably a poor one to make in your query letter, if you're going there.
posted by PhoBWanKenobi at 2:06 PM on May 2, 2010

Response by poster: Hi PhoBWan!

I'm going to drop you a MeMail, but first let me answer a couple of your points as I think they might be relevant to other people trying to answer the question.

I finished the first draft of the book back in October '09. I workshopped the early versions of it at SFF-OWW, and I have had about a dozen people (some close to me, some more objective) read later drafts.

I have gotten some good advice in general from writers I have opened correspondence with, but none of them have read my manuscript (I understand that generally their agents forbid them from reading unsolicited MSS anyway, for legal reasons), so it's just broad spectrum advice rather than specific feedback.

And finally, regarding "Slaughterhouse Five" and "The Time Traveler's Wife." You're absolutely right, they are quite different. My book is similar to each in some ways, but mostly I was trying to point out how both of those books are simultaneously science fiction and mainstream literature. And don't worry, I don't make that comparison in my query letter.
posted by 256 at 2:20 PM on May 2, 2010

Best answer: It seems like generally you're doing the right things - getting your query letter and pages into the hands of agents. It's normal to send out a lot of queries before getting an agent, and the fact that you're getting requests for partials means you must be doing something right. One note - it's sometimes easier to land an agent who's just starting out or just starting a new agency. Working with a superstar agent is great, but someone new and bright may focus more energy and effort on your particular behalf. Seeking out some of those people could help.

In terms of the conference, given your budgetary limitations, have you considered just doing the Agent-Author Seminar on May 27? The cost for just that is $275, and since it's a one-day thing you could probably go there and back in a single day and save on hotel costs etc. The website says there's still space in your genre. It seems like that might be the best value for you, since tuning up your query and opening pages might be key to getting more interest in your manuscript. It also gets you face-time with two agents who represent sci fi authors (the list of agents on the website looked pretty respectable to me).

FWIW, I did end up working with an agent I met briefly at a conference. I went up to her and introduced myself and my project after a panel she was on, and she invited me to send her a query letter. I did so, and she eventually offered to represent me. I think our meeting may have slightly increased her inclination to request chapters from me, but ultimately the work has to stand on its own. I also got an offer from another agent I'd never met.

In terms of lower-cost alternatives, have you explored the online resources for learning to write query letters? Obviously I have no idea what your letter is like - it might be stellar - but it's the first thing agents read, and you suggest you have a bit of doubt about your own. The Query Shark blog is an agent critiquing hundreds of real query letters. Other agents, such as Kristin Nelson (see the links on her sidebar), also offer tips on their blogs. The SFWA site also has some resources to check out. If you don't already have one, participating in a local writing group would be another free way to get feedback on your own query and novel.

Incidentally, I'd advise you against viewing any draft as your final one - most agents and editors will require revisions as well.
posted by unsub at 2:26 PM on May 2, 2010

I have no answer for whether you should attend the conference, but are you tailoring your query letter to the individual agents you're querying? I ask because it's unclear and when you say you've written "a query letter" it made me think to ask. If you've been using the same letter, try changing it somewhat based on the agents' individual submission guidelines and the sorts of things they're looking for. Check to see if each one has a blog to get a feel for what's important to them. The stuff agents like to see can vary, and one agent might like something that is another's pet peeve.

Either way, good luck to you and keep trying! I love stuff that straddles the sci-fi and literary genres (and fantasy/literary as well). That's what I write, too (no finished drafts yet) so I've been reading extensively about this the past few years. It is more challenging to get an agent for the genre-straddlers, though, because it's not as clear cut to market. I've read several agent blog posts along those lines. You might want to try looking for agents willing to take on "magical realism" or else try describing it as only sci-fi to the sci-fi agents or only literary to the literary agents; they like to have a clear idea of what to do with it. It sucks, but I'm hoping as the genre straddling books become more popular -- and they have -- it won't be such a struggle. On a similar note, sci-fi (and to a lesser extent, fantasy) are getting a more respectable reputation lately so that stuff with relatively realistic, human plots aren't seen as literary-only anymore. Sci-fi might be the easier angle. You can work on widening its appeal outside the genre when it's published.

Hope to see you published soon!
posted by Nattie at 2:46 PM on May 2, 2010

Well as others have said if you are getting partial requests you are doing something right. But it's very early days and I'd give it a while longer before thinking of changing what you are doing. Are you getting personalised rejections or form letters? If you only get the latter (once you've queried some more), then that might be an indication you might want to change something.

I've not been to a Writer's Conference but I've been to several literary sf cons in the UK which are probably similar (but cheaper). However, though they are not so geared up for direct business between authors and agents, I found them very useful for making friends and contacts, getting advice, getting ideas, boosting confidence and enthusiasm and lots of other intangible benefits.

One minor point, 120 000 is a bit on the long side for a first novel submission - the standard for an adult novel is 80-100 000 - which might be used as an excuse to reject you.

And definitely start writing another novel. There's plenty of pro writers out there who were rejected numerous times and didn't get a break until their second (or latter) book. Mefi's own Charlie Stross is one of them.

Good luck, anyway!
posted by fearfulsymmetry at 3:18 PM on May 2, 2010

Response by poster: A couple more quick clarifications:

I have indeed read every bit of advice on the query process that I can find online, including Pub Rants, Query Shark and all the resources listed at the SFWA and AgentQuery sites.

And yes, when I say that I have written a query letter, I do mean that I have written a base query letter (two, in fact. one for sending to agents who represent mostly SF and one for agents who represent mostly literary fiction). I am making minor modifications to it every time I send it out, depending on the agent-in-question's submission guidelines and other available information.

As for the length and "final draft" matter: I know that it's a little long, but I think it's still within the ideal range. The first draft was nearly 150k. And when I say "final draft," I mean only that I am essentially done tinkering with it and think that it is ready to stand on its own. I know that a lot of people tend to jump the gun and send out unedited first draft manuscripts. On more than one agent's website I have read words to the effect of: "Don't send us a first draft. Don't send us a second or third draft either, for that matter. Send us a polished final draft." That said, I fully expect that there will be changed to the text before it actually sees print.

Okay. I'll nod out again for a bit. Thanks so much for all the thoughts and advice so far. Please, keep it coming.
posted by 256 at 3:42 PM on May 2, 2010

It seems like lots of writers go to conventions like Gencon to network and also start off by making Anthologies where they get some stories from already-know and published authors (who like to help the upcoming ones plus get a small amount of cash). That way you can slip some stories of your own in the anthology and become stealthily published. Publishing your first book online free or for sale online-only or even self-publishing in a small run are also options. I think it is a lot harder to get books published than many years ago.
posted by meepmeow at 4:17 PM on May 2, 2010

120k is pretty standard for speculative fiction; I would be surprised if that was a rejection reason.
posted by Nattie at 4:38 PM on May 2, 2010

You just missed out on Lunacon in NYC. It's a very literary con with a fairly heavy focus on publishing. If you still haven't sold it by next Lunacon (or even if you have) you might want to attend.
posted by thekiltedwonder at 5:18 PM on May 2, 2010

Best answer: It's probably a frivolous expense. There's very little you're going to do at Backspace that you can't do online, short of an actual pitch session with an agent or an editor. And even then, all you'll get is, "Sure, send it to me."

If you only started querying in February, you're doing quite well. To have had partial requests already- heck, to have that many rejections already- is a sign that you're being read and considered.

To keep yourself sane in the meantime, start working on your next book. Now is an excellent time to start working on the waiting-wondering-waiting part of being a working writer. Even when you have an agent, you'll be doing the same. All you can do until someone says yes is work on the next book.

Save the 700 bucks and keep doing what you're doing: query widely, include 5 pages whether they ask for it or not, and keep going.
posted by headspace at 7:30 PM on May 2, 2010

Having just spent the weekend at a literary conference--as a presenter who got to hang out with the agents and hear them talk about the people they were meeting--I just wanted to echo that all the above advice is right on the money. Even though you'd meet agents at the conference, their likely response would be "Great. Send me a query." And you'd be right back where you started, minus $700. I know a lot of people who found their agents at conferences, but I don't think the face-to-face meeting was necessary. It's just a matter of getting the right query in the right agent's hands.

And actually it sounds like you're already doing the right things. Five partials out of twenty is pretty darn good. It takes a while... just keep at it. Think of it as dating and finding the right partner.

My only other piece of advice is that if you're SURE the manuscript is as good as you can make it, but you're not similarly confident about the query letter, you might hire someone to help you spruce the letter up. There are lots of writing consultants out there who should be able to help you tweak your base letter, which you can then tailor for individual agents. And that would cost far less than the conference, and might do more good in the end. (But worry about this only if you're sure the manuscript itself is as polished as you can make it right now.)
posted by Ms. Informed at 10:13 AM on May 3, 2010

Best answer: I've attended 5 Backspace events - most of them not as an aspiring author, but as a volunteer. Full disclosure: I'm related to one of the conference organizers.

Conferences like Backspace are great, if you can afford them. It's true you don't need to go to a conference to find representation. In an informal poll at the Backspace discussion forums, out of approximately 45 agented authors only 5 said they found their agent by meeting them at a conference. Another 5 found their agent through a referral, and the rest found their agent by sending them a regular query letter.

In fact, the Backspace conference doesn't even offer pitch sessions. Authors can connect with agents at conferences (and in 2009, 7 authors signed with agents they met through a Backspace event, out of approximately 200 attendees), but Backspace believes (and the agents agree) that face-to-face formal pitch sessions are a waste of everybody's time. Why spend hundreds of dollars to do in person what you can accomplish just as well by email?

Instead, Backspace offers small-group workshops where authors can get their queries or pages critiqued by an agent. If agents like the material, they ask the authors to submit, but if the material isn't as ready as the author hoped it would be, they can take the agents' suggestions into account, and submit to these and other agents later, without burning bridges.

Bottom line: you don't need to attend a conference to get an agent. But if you can afford it, attending conferences like Backspace can be a real help. You can meet agents face-to-face, ask questions, get a better sense of their personalities and find out if you'd be able to work well together, learn how the industry works, and yes, talk to agents about your project. The Backspace conference organizers are writers, and they know what writers want, so they build a lot of agent face time into the program, and always have an author-friendly ratio of authors to agents - usually 25 - 30 agents to 100 - 125 authors. (The cost now would be $500 for the two-day conference, since the Agent-Author Seminar is sold out.)
posted by Wyrmspace at 11:04 AM on May 3, 2010

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