Wednesday, February 22, 2012

The mystery agent (pt. 3)

This is part three in my series about the steps to publication and here's the overview of what one needs to do to get published, which I'll put at the top of each post as a reminder.
  1. Write a book
  2. Find an agent
  3. Get a publisher
So, step two: Find an Agent. And I think this will qualify as the hardest and most frustrating of all the steps, for almost every writer.

But it's necessary. If you want your book published by a paying publisher (e.g., Penguin, Simon & Schuster, etc.) then the only way that happens is if a literary agent gets you a book deal. Now, smaller presses will accept submissions from writers directly but one usually goes that route after shooting for the big guys. And I suppose there are cases somewhere, somehow, sometime, when a writer gets a deal with a major publisher on his or her own, but as a business model it's a failure. You need an agent.

So how? Well, since we're doing lists, here's the route:

1. Identify agents that represent the kind of book you have written. There are several web sites that help writers do this, a quick Google search will bring them all up but the ones I used were: AbsoluteWrite, AgentQuery, and Preditors and Editors. It's important to research each and every agent because many have specific requirements for when you initiate contact.

2. Write a bang-up query letter.
This is how you initiate contact, it's a one-page letter (usually sent by email nowadays) that explains to a potential agent the length of your book, the genre (mystery, sci-fi etc), the basic plot, and a little about the writer. Trust me when I say this can be the most difficult project a writer takes on, and again there are web sites that will help show how it's done.

3. Email your query to said agents.
For mystery writers there are over a hundred legitimate agents who will represent you, which sounds like a lot. It's not, because the next thing you need to do is. . .

4. Get used to rejection
. Everyone has been told they have a story in them. Usually it should remain there, but people don't recognize this and all agents are bombarded with queries. Statistics bandied about the Internet suggest that most agents get literally hundreds of queries per week and reject 99 percent of all writers at the query stage. Which tells you how important it is that your query is not just good, but stellar. Now, assuming yours is, the agent might ask for the first three chapters, which you mail off eagerly.

5. And wait.
This is another stage where you can be rejected, obviously, but should you make it through the agent will request the complete novel.

6. Which you send off, and then wait some more.
This final stage is agony, of course, because it can be the first time your precious work has been viewed by a professional. Sure, your mum likes it and your husband thinks you're an awesome writer, but this is a literary agent, a professional in the business. And the truth is, unless they love the book they won't take it on. They might like it or love parts of it, but chances are that loving all of it is the only thing that will get you that offer of representation. Which is why your finished novel needs to be as good as your query.
Tough business, no?

7. But The Call is priceless when it comes, and it comes to many new writers.
I received mine while driving to Houston with my wife. I remember sitting in a booth at a crappy Italian restaurant beside I-10. It was a moment of pure bliss.

I am not a good record keeper but I can tell you that for The Bookseller, I queried about 25 agents. Three others were reading the full manuscript when Ann Collette offered to represent me. All three of the others were very happy for me and told me to accept because they weren't going to have time to read the manuscript in the time I'd told Ann I'd accept/decline.

Decline, yeah right.

Timeline. . . from finishing the novel to signing with Ann was about six months, almost a year after I'd started writing the book. Six months of querying which is pretty quick, I'd say, but it didn't feel like it at the time, I can assure you!

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