Oh, this all too solid flesh is melting
January 19, 2006 11:24 AM   Subscribe

Interested in approaches to getting my novel published. From those who are more in the know than myself.

A brief background. Eddie Cantor once said that it takes twenty years to make an overnight success. Fine, I've been writing seriously for twenty years now. I've sold some short stories and poetry. I've received a few minor awards. I've just completed my fourth novel, all unpublished. My writing is pop rather than literary, so I can't console myself by saying that I'm writing great works that expand the borders of the literary universe but which have abstracts wonders beyond mortal appreciation. Because I view myself primarily as a storyteller, if my audience doesn't applaud, my work is without value. And certainly no audience means no applause.

I know the basics, write a good query letter, look in to sources like Predators and Editors. I live in an area that there are no opportunities for networking with other writers. I also realize these are dire times. . . even my reading consumption is down from twenty some books per year to about ten. Probably Metafilter's fault.

But I thought there may be things I'm missing from my to-do list. Do people still go to New York and pound the pavement in person? My novel has a catchy title and a good pitch, so maybe I could confab.

I'm loathe to publish it myself, although that may be because I'm stuck in some traditional notion of writers are not publishers. Is it bad form to query many agents at once? I've always done this serially.

Is the only answer persistence? I've persisted at writing -- frankly, I can't stop. But I usually give up on a piece after, let's say, five rejections. I'm usually fully committed to some other project by then. Am I the only one who believes persistence is evil? Persistence is the thing that gets things that should be rejected published.

Well, let me know. I've been here a year but this is my first time in the question forum.
posted by dances_with_sneetches to Writing & Language (18 answers total) 7 users marked this as a favorite
Get an agent.

Even so, read this article from a couple of weeks ago. It's pretty depressing.
posted by mikel at 11:31 AM on January 19, 2006

Nice link mikel. Doesn't make me feel so bad about getting my first short story rejection letter today.
posted by Kickstart70 at 11:40 AM on January 19, 2006

have you thought about publishing electronically. i've heard of a few authors who have made positive noises about this process (cory doctorow for one - though i think he published books at the same time) and how it's a cheap way to get exposure for yourself and your writing.
posted by tnai at 11:41 AM on January 19, 2006

tnai: works well when you're a known, published author (heck Cory's won a few major prizes for his writing), but doing that as a beginner is useless.
posted by Kickstart70 at 11:45 AM on January 19, 2006

Best answer: Don't query agents serially -- go to Agent Query to look for likely candidates and query as many as you think will be a good fit for your kind of writing, given their clients, their areas of interests, and their track records. Read Miss Snark for an agent's perspective on what makes for good query letters and synopses.

Persistence is pretty much the answer here. I know someone who just got her first book deal with Algonquin after the novel had been rejected by 17 other places. Giving up after 5 rejections might be okay for the short story market, but giving up after 5 rejections by agents or book publishers is self-defeating.
posted by mothershock at 11:52 AM on January 19, 2006 [1 favorite]

RE: tnai's suggestion -- it's not a bad way to go, if you just want some exposure. But a better idea might be submitting work to online literary mags, where some agents are known to lurk -- having a chapter published in a reputable online mag can get you some favorable attention. Another writer friend of mine was contacted by two big-name agents after having her work on VerbSap.

Also -- I met my agent in a completely idiosyncratic way that makes my advice on the logistics of querying pretty useless, but I've heard from friends doing the AgentQuery thing that they've had a good response from those agents who accept email queries. The snail mail ones seem to just disappear.
posted by mothershock at 11:57 AM on January 19, 2006

First, the Time online article isn't depressing, it's just snotty. To say that all works by a wirter are equally great and therefore anyone who doesn't recognize "talent" out of hand is stupid is, well, stupid. You can't do a blind taste test on literature as literature is idiosyncratic. Writers don't get published because they are great writers, they get published because they struck a chord with an editor. It only takes one editor to feel something to buy a book.

Agents are a way to go. The good ones are there because they know how to sell a book. If you think you can sell a book better than your agent, then you don't have a good agent. But if you don't have the time to do multiple submissions and get the manuscript in the hands of the right editor (proposals are automatically put into one of two piles in a publishing house- the slush pile or the editor's in-box. The difference is how the manuscript is addressed. You send it to some generic name or to the main contact listed on a publisher's stats, you're going to the slush pile to wait until some EA or intern has time to read through hundreds of proposals), then an agent is a good decision.

There are houses that accept unagented proposals. There are houses that look for talent outside an agent. But when you start from point zero you are competing with everyone else at point zero who believes they can write. The question isn't how good your novel but how many other mansucript the editor or agent read that day before getting to yours. Imagine reading 30 proposals from people who are blindly submitting their manuscript to any name they find. You become dulled to any kind of writing good or bad.

I've found the secret to getting published is to give the editor an easy way to understand how the book will sell- what it's competition is, where this will go, who it will appeal to, why the book will stand out against the 144,000 other books that will be released in the same year. The big jump most writers need to make is to separate themselves from their writing and look at it as a product and what you want to accomplish with the work. If you just want it published and available for the world to read- publish electronically. If you want to develop a career and find a publisher who will take your work, re-edit it, set it, and produce a well done product to sell on the shelves of Barnes and Noble, then you will need to persevere and get ready to send out several samples to try and get interest.
posted by rodz at 1:16 PM on January 19, 2006

I think five times (even for a short story) is not a lot of rejections. I know people who sold novels only after dozens (and dozens) of rejections from agents and publishers. So keep at it. You might also consider, if you've written four, going with a very small publisher for one of them, if you can find one -- it'll give you some cred with agents for the others.

There are writers conferences, too, where you can 'pitch' agents (and maybe editors.) You might look in Novel and Short Story Writers Market for some of those.
posted by drobot at 1:39 PM on January 19, 2006

Best answer: Of course you can query simultaneously--but continue to do your research. I think it's pretty standard to query many agents or editors at once. It's sounding like you chose that person to query for a reason (and a professional letter) that makes it stand out from the slush pile, at least initially. You're not exactly a novice, so you probably already know, but I think it bears repeating--do your research.

I'd advise strongly against self-publishing, print or electronic. Unless you have a very specific reason/event for which to publish it, and you're prepared to put a lot of effort into selling a lot of copies, OR you don't care about being legitimately published and you just want a bound copy of your book, self-publishing is not for you.

People don't really pound the pavement in that way anymore--but perhaps today's equivalent is writer's conferences. I'm in children's, which has the SCBWI, which hosts regional conferences where writers mingle with other writers and meet agents and editors, go to workshops, and get the chance to pitch their ideas. I'm not sure what the adult counterpart(s) might be, but I'm sure they're out there.
posted by lampoil at 1:40 PM on January 19, 2006

Response by poster: Thanks for all the quick responses. Certainly parallel letters to agents will speed up my chances.
My notion with rejections is always: I can improve, watch this next one. This is in contrast to, I'll send it out sixteen more times.
My problem (and what would kill me at self-marketing) is that I'm not a marketer at heart. It just isn't in me. I like to think of it as the difference between Leonard Cohen and Madonna. Madonna - genius hypester, all time record song-seller, mediocre singer/dancer. Leonard Cohen - um, me (in my dreams). Not that Cohen is a complete slouch at sales -- but I would doubt he's had a single "top 40."
I've done some online publishing, ezines. Not my novels, I don't think there's a lot of online novel reading, but some of my shorter works.
Thanks again. Sent out my first query letter on my new work today.
posted by dances_with_sneetches at 1:43 PM on January 19, 2006

Oh and I have to echo that five rejections is not much. I think you'll have more luck sticking with each piece longer. The worst is getting submission after half-assed submission from the same writer. Better to submit a few things to a lot of people than a lot of things to a few people.
posted by lampoil at 1:44 PM on January 19, 2006

Despite whatever you may have seen on the Amazon best sellers list... I've found it generally helps if your memoirs are based on reality.
posted by meta x zen at 2:03 PM on January 19, 2006

Yeah, five rejections is nothing. There are plenty of good books out there (Harry Potter, for example) that went through twenty or forty rejections before finally someone saw their true worth.
posted by Rubber Soul at 2:31 PM on January 19, 2006

Also note that, depending on the genre of your novel, it is often easier to find a publisher before your find an agent. If you're writing (for example) science fiction or fantasy, you would be better advised to submit the manuscript yourself and find an agent only after you have an acceptance letter in hand.
posted by Justinian at 3:13 PM on January 19, 2006

Along with the above-mentioned Miss Snark, Agent 007 is a literary agent who blogs anonymously. Also, the blog Buzz, Balls & Hype is mostly about book marketing, especially by authors themselves.

Poets & Writers has made some strides in the last few years toward becoming a practical resource for literary authors -- if you're not already visiting the site or reading the magazine, have a look.
posted by gnomeloaf at 5:34 PM on January 19, 2006

Also also note that the only real reason it may be "easier" to get a publisher before an agent is because the publisher knows they don't have to pay you much if you're unagented. It's almost always in the author's best interest to have an agent. If your agent is legit, you will get more money. (But of course, beware scam agents). And if your ms is good enough to get published without an agent, an agent will only help. And suddenly getting an agent mid-deal does not exactly aid in setting up a good relationship with your publisher. This shouldn't deter you, necessarily, from submitting your work to houses that accept unagented submissions--I just don't recommend attempting to skip the agent step all together.
posted by lampoil at 7:07 AM on January 20, 2006

tnai: works well when you're a known, published author (heck Cory's won a few major prizes for his writing), but doing that as a beginner is useless.

fair point, but i'd argue that some exposure is better than no exposure if you're having problems finding a publisher. i just singled CD out as an example.
posted by tnai at 6:42 AM on January 21, 2006

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