Querying for the New Year? Pt 1

January 14, 2014 at 7:50 pm (Industry, Writing) (, , , , , )

Welcome to the middle of January! When the New Year’s Resolutions are just beginning to flag and we’re starting to curse ourselves for making them in the first place!

No, but seriously, this is the time when our resolutions start meeting reality, and we begin to understand just what we’re getting ourselves into. And for a lot of people in this community, those resolutions have to do with publishing: get an agent, sell a book, have a book come out, etc. These are dangerous resolutions, mainly because: you can’t control a lot of that. A resolution is something you’re supposed to accomplish within THAT year, and if publishing is a realm of hopes and dreams, it’s also a land of harsh reality. The simple fact is, try as you might, even if what you put out there is your absolute best, you may not get to where you want to be in a single year. Sometimes there are miracles and your dream comes true right away, but for most of us, it takes patience and persistence.

BUT.

For those of you that are tackling this mountain this year, whether as a goal or as a resolution, here are some things to keep in mind, things I learned from my own process.

Are you really ready?

It’s incredibly tempting to say “Yes, oh my God, I was BORN READY!!!!”-

-but don’t. Take the time to really step back and look at your manuscript. Are. You. Ready.

-Is the manuscript finished? With very few exceptions, almost all of them non-fiction, your manuscript MUST BE FINISHED. This is for a lot of reasons. For one thing, it’s a lot easier to start a project than to finish one. Whether you’re submitting to agents or publishers, they need to see all of it. They need to see that your writing stays consistent, that you have a full grasp of the story and character arcs, that you can maintain the pace to a satisfying conclusion. There’s not a lot anyone other than a critique partner can do with an unfinished manuscript. If your manuscript is not finished, this is your first step: FINISH IT. Sit your butt in the chair and get it done.

-Is the manuscript polished? The only people who should see your first drafts are your critique partners. First drafts are full of mistakes and gaping holes, with many, many things that need to be fixed. That’s why they’re FIRST drafts. You don’t want to flash around anything that isn’t your best. Whatever you’re hoping to accomplish, whether it’s signing with an agent, selling to a publisher, or self-publishing, your manuscript needs to be the best you can possibly make it. The BEST, not “good enough”. If you’re satisfied with good enough, you’re cheating yourself, cheating your work, and cheating everything you hope to achieve. Editing is work- HARD work- but you owe it to yourself and to your story to do a solid job of it.

-Who else has seen it? And perhaps more importantly, are the opinions legitimate? I know that sounds kind of weird, but if the only person who’s seen your manuscript is your mom, you need to get some more feedback on it. Moms (and dads) are pretty much obligated to adore you and everything you do, so unless you are very, VERY sure that your family members will give you an honest and detailed critique, don’t base your good feelings about your manuscript purely on their approbation. Find people with experience writing, with experience critically reading. Maggie Stiefvater has a Critique Partner dating service from time to time, and if you’re in the market, definitely keep an eye on her blog for when the posts come up. If you can’t find a CP, especially if you can’t find a critical reader, consider making the investment to have a freelance editor look at it, for correctness if nothing else, but if you can get a detailed crit, that’s wonderful. If you’re writing Middle Grade, Young Adult, or New Adult, check out Manuscript Critique Services, run by four YA authors who know their shizz. (They’re by no means the only critique service out there, but they’re GOOD- and they give you a way to test the waters before committing to a full shebang). If you decide to go this route, do your research- there are a lot of freelance groups and individuals out there, at varying levels of skill, experience, and services offered, and you need to really decide what’s going to be best FOR YOU and FOR YOUR WORK.

If you’re planning on self-publishing, chances are you’re going to have to put money down; this is how most of the self-pubs operate. You’re making the investment on the expectation that you will sell enough to recoup that initial cost and hopefully then some. Given that, if you are self-pubbing, USE AN EDITORIAL SERVICE. An error in a blog post is one thing (still tacky, but hey, it happens, and it’s not the end of the world). Errors in a finished book also happen, but it’s rare to find more than two or three in the final copy. This is because humans make mistakes, and as much as we’d love to believe we catch everything, things happen. However, the number of mistakes and errors and screw-ups that get caught through the various stages of the editing process is staggering. Editors and copy-editors are invaluable, and if you choose not to go with traditional pubs, you should really consider making this investment. A good editor, freelance or otherwise, isn’t just looking for mis-spelled words or crazy commas. They’re looking at agreement, at word choice, at sentence structure and cadence, at consistency, at usage. A very good editor is also looking for correctness- do you know what the hell you’re talking about. One of the biggest reasons a lot of self-pubbed books get dismal reviews is because people can’t get past the lack of proper editing to get into the story or characters.

-Can you write the back cover of your book? This may or may not be something you end up ACTUALLY doing, depending on the path you choose, but you need to be ABLE to do it. The back cover is what you’re telling people who ask you what it’s about. The back cover is what you’re including in query letters or cover letters. The back cover is what gets people interested. It also says that yes, you know EXACTLY what your book is about, that you can sum it up succinctly, that you can make it a straightforward pitch. If you can’t intrigue someone with this, chances are, they’re not going to read on, and you’ve wasted an opportunity. If you self-publish, this is something you HAVE to be able to do for yourself.

Checks down the line?
Next up, we have:
Choose your path.

Publishing has, in many ways, become a Choose Your Own Adventure book. There are so many options out there, and you really need to be sure of which way you want to go, because it does change how you approach things. No matter what path you ultimately choose, the first step is the same.

-DO YOUR RESEARCH. Here in the age of the internet, there is so much information available for remarkably little effort. There are writer resources all over the place, there are author blogs, agent blogs, editor blogs. There’s twitter, and tumblr. It’s actually pretty easy to drown in the information, there’s so much out there. Do a LOT of research, and make sure you can understand what information is useful and what isn’t. Towering rages against traditional publishing by someone who sent out two unsolicited submissions to publishers who don’t accept the genre? Not useful. A point by point breakdown by someone who’s done both traditional and self-publishing, and what they liked and disliked about both? VERY USEFUL.

The thing is, you need to understand the decision you’re making. Too many people think of self-publishing as a cop-out, as something you do if you can’t make it in the big leagues. Too many people think traditional publishing is a dead form bent on sales at the expense of quality. Neither is true. Self-publishing is a completely valid way to go about getting your book out there, BUT: you need to be aware that all of the responsibilities that are normally shared within a publishing house will all fall on you, and you need to be prepared for that. Any path you choose requires a hell of a lot of work and commitment.

Something I will say- as a bookseller, not as an author- is that self-published books can be very difficult to get on the shelves. (And being completely fair, a lot of traditionally published books can be difficult to get on the shelves, if they’re a smaller house or smaller title). However, for a bookstore, the traditionally published books are a safer risk. Almost every traditional publisher has a returnable feature on their titles, which means that after a certain period of no sales within a store, the store can send it back to the distribution center, where it can cycle out to other stores (or wait ignominiously to be marked down to bargain, as sometimes happens). The store gets credit for the return, the book sits at the warehouse and go out again at a later point. Everyone wins. With self-publishing companies, the returnable feature frequently costs extra (sometimes a lot extra), and a lot of authors don’t make that additional investment. That means that if the bookstore brings it in and it doesn’t sell, we’re stuck with it. We can’t move it to make room for newer merchandise. It sits on a shelf or in the back room and waits to be marked down to clearance. Most stores aren’t willing to take that risk, because it costs us money.

Some questions to ask yourself: what are my expectations? And be honest with yourself about this. What is it that you want? What are you willing to put into it? This should be a financial consideration, yes, but it should also be a degree of work. How hard are you willing to work? How much time and effort are you willing to put into it? Be honest about your skills, and about the skills of those you may ask for help. For most people, putting out a book is a long-cherished, deeply-held dream, and yes, the package is a part of that. A bad cover, bad formatting, bad editing, can kill a book far more easily than most of us want to believe.

-Make a decision. After you’ve done your research, after you’ve asked (and answered) a lot of difficult questions about yourself, your manuscript, and your expectations and dreams, it’s time to make a decision. Do you want to self-publish? Do you want to traditionally publish? Do you want to sign with an agent?

For myself, the answers were no, yes, and yes, and that’s based more on my evaluation of my own shortcomings than any sense of snobbishness about self-publishing. I know what I can do- I also know what I can’t do. I can’t design a book to save my life. I can’t do a good job packaging. I can’t catch all of the errors and tweaks, I can’t find the things that another set of eyes and experiences can make amazing, and let’s be honest, I suck at self-marketing. I try. I do…badly. Even if I’d had the money to make the investment into self-publishing, it would not have been a good fit for me. Plus, my dream for as long as I can remember has been to go into a store and see it on the shelf. It may not be on many shelves, but it can be, and to me, that’s extraordinary. As for the agent, this was a no duh for me personally. I don’t have contacts, and while I know a lot about the industry, it’s not enough. More to the point, I don’t want to tear my hair out going over contracts and negotiating and trying to make sure all the numbers are right and the payments are done correctly and this and this and that. You know, the business stuff, the stuff that goes right over my head. Or under my feet, depending on how head-in-the-clouds I am on any given day. A good agent isn’t just evaluating the likelihood of your manuscript selling, isn’t just pitching it to editors with the valuable contacts and experience he or she has accumulated. An agent is also helping you manage all the business stuff. That being said, ALWAYS READ YOUR CONTRACTS. Read everything you’re signing. Read everything you’re sent that’s even remotely official. Just because you have Agent Extraordinaire managing the business aspects doesn’t mean you can be clueless. This is your livelihood. Well, part of your livelihood.

There are a few (few) agents who take on self-publishers, mostly in the business and loosely editorial realm. It’s a unique stance, and we’ll see if that widens or not in the next few years. So self-publishing doesn’t immediately mean that an agent to protect your interests is outside the realm of possibility- again, it comes back to doing your research and deciding if this is a good fit for you. If you’re pursuing traditional publishing, an agent is going to get you in far more doors than you’ll find open on your own. Most editors aren’t going to look at unsolicited manuscripts. Editors trust agents to show them things in which they may have interest, things that fill well on a list in a catalogue, things that show the agent has paid attention to the editor’s history and preferences. I’m not at all saying that trad. publishing is impossible if you’re unrepresented, but I am saying it limits your options.

Have you made your choice?
Guess what, it’s back to:
Do your research.

I know, you thought you were done with this, right? But now that you’ve identified the best path for you, you need to pick the right door.

-So you want to self-publish? There are a lot of companies out there that can help you. Or, if you want to create and distribute entirely on your own, there’s a lot you need to be aware of. Look at your options. Look at the quality of the products that come out of it. Look at the accessibility of product- will you be available to major retail websites? Major retail stores? Will you be able to sell through your own website? Look at the contracts- not every publisher will allow you to see even a boilerplate contract unless you’re signing it, but google the companies and see what users are saying about them. You want the best bang for your buck- the best product, the best terms, the best accessibility. Don’t just jump on the first wagon you see.

-So you want an agent? Check out the Writers’ Market guides, or Query Tracker, or Agent Query. Check out writers’ forums. Flip open the books you’d be most likely to use as comp titles, books you think would pair very well with your own, and check out the acknowledgments- agents are frequently listed as the lifesavers and mental health companions that they are. Check out agent blogs. Check out agent and agency websites. Follow them on twitter.

Follow.

Do Not Stalk.

Agents are very vocal about whether or not they’re looking for anything at the time, as well as WHAT they’re looking for. KNOW YOUR BOOK- know its age range, know it’s category or genre (s), know how you can compare it to things. Look at what the agent is saying they want- does your book fit? (Personal example: on the L. Perkins Agency website, the Fabulous Sandy’s bio said she was looking for things with strong voice. Ophelia has her faults, God knows, but a lack of voice isn’t one of them.) Where your book meshes with what they’re looking for is what you’re going to want to put in your query. Look at what an agent has sold- do they have sales? Recent sales? Do they represent people you’ve heard of? Every agent has to start somewhere, and a brand new agent isn’t the same as a bad agent, but you want to pay attention.

DO NOT SEND MONEY TO AN AGENT TO READ YOUR MANUSCRIPT. Agents make money when you do, and not before. There are a ton of very good, very reputable agents who aren’t part of the official association, so a lack of membership isn’t a red flag, but if they’re charging you up front? BACK. AWAY. Writer Beware is an excellent resource for known scammers and frauds. Trust your instincts- if you’re getting hinky feelings off something, you’re probably right in thinking that it’s sketchy. Then back your instincts up by checking.

I’ll talk more about querying below, but as you’re researching agents, start making a list of possibilities, agents you think might be interested, agents you’d love to query. Along with their names and agencies, write down pertinent information- website, query email, authors or books they’ve represented that made you think of them, what they say they’re looking for, submission guidelines. This way when you’re actually ready to query, you have all the information right there, instead of making a second desperate search all over creation (also known as the Internet). Agents are not all created equal. They have different personalities, they represent different things. You don’t want to spam every listed agent whether they represent your stuff or not. At best, you’ll be ignored. At worst, they’ll be pissed off, and remember you. That is not how you want to be remembered.

-So you want to submit to publishers without an agent? Yup, you’ve got your research too! And to be honest, yours may be more difficult than anyone else’s, because your information is a little more buried. Your task is to find houses willing to look at unagented manuscripts. Some editors will open to unsoliciteds for a time (like Editor Andrew at Carolrhoda Lab did for this past week) to see if there’s a golden find. Some will let you send it and not immediately shred it for mulch, but it’s kind of on the understanding that the only way it’ll ever be read is if someone gets REALLY bored in the bathroom. The ones you’re mostly going to be looking for will probably be smaller houses. Check websites CAREFULLY. Submission guidelines will be there somewhere.

Let’s leave it here for now, because this is a monster post that’s probably getting a little hard to read, and I’ll be back in a few days with Part 2: Prep Your Shizz.

And I’m going to spend most of the few days writing it trying to come up with a different title, because I can’t take that seriously.

Until next time~
Cheers!

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3 Comments

  1. pheonixgate said,

    Thanks for the great information! This is a really good breakdown and very clear.

  2. Querying for the New Year? Pt 2 | Scattered Pages said,

    […] last time, we talked about the first steps towards […]

  3. Book Bloggery Week-in-Review (43) said,

    […] gives some advice on querying (and here’s part […]

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