In a time and place not very far in the past, perhaps ten or fifteen years ago:
A boy, not yet a man, has completed his first novel. It’s a sword-and-sorcery fantasy epic that took him six years to write. In that time he has found the how-to books about publishing in the library and in the tiny writers’ section of the book store. One of them is written by his favorite author of science fiction and fantasy. It recommends that a first-time writer try to hook a publisher, then see about getting an agent before signing any contracts.
The boy pours over the details in these magical books and learns how to properly format a query package: one inch margins all around, last name/title/page number on the top right, no staples or paper clips – no one mentions 12 point Courier font because the authors of these books assume that writing happens on a typewriter. He learns of the holy grail of publishing, mentioned in every how-to book: the Writer’s Market.
The library’s three most recent volumes are never in, so he goes to the book store and he spends $65 on his very own copy, which for this young man is a substantial investment. He spends more money on stamps and printer paper and just the right kind of envelopes. For hours he pours over the tiny print in the Writer’s Market to learn each publisher’s personalized requirements, and spends hours more assembling sample chapter, synopses, and self-addressed-stamped-envelopes according to each publisher’s particular tastes. When this ritual is ended, he carries the weighty stack of sealed envelopes to the post office and mails them off to the submissions editors, those faceless judges who preside over some secret court reachable only via the postal service. In three months he begins to receive rejection slips, but the last will not arrive until fully a year after the query was mailed. He gets three requests for partials and two requests for a full manuscript. Though all end in rejection, the editor who requested the full responds with a couple hundred words of constructive criticism and asks him to revise and resubmit. By the time he does so the kind editor has left her job. The publisher is in financial straits and no longer interested.
Fast forward now to the present day. The boy is now a young man. His how-to books are outdated, the one written by his no-longer-favorite author preserved on a shelf only because of the personalized autograph. The young man has finished his fifth revision of that same novel, and it’s time to consider publication. His plan now is to find an agent, because the two remaining publishers who still accept unagented submissions have already declined. The Writer’s Market is no longer the definitive compendium it once was – in fact, it’s quaint and pretty much defunct at this point. The young man goes where the action is: the internet. Continue Reading
More great stuff from Eric at Pimp My Novel. Many of us aspiring writers read book after book about the process of getting that first book published, but few of us know anything about the business of selling those books, which is obviously secondary but no less relevant to our interests. For instance:
Returns—Often expressed as a percentage, returns are the books sent back to the publisher by the account(s). The return rate is described by (# of books returned by the account)/(# of books shipped to the account).
Sell-through—Also often expressed as a percentage, sell-through is the number of books sold by an account compared to how many it bought. It is described by (# of books sold by the account)/(# of books shipped to the account).
Lots of people don’t realize it, but writers make their money from publisher sales to book stores, not from book store sales to readers. This sounds great to a lot of us writers, until we see the difference our return and sell-through rates make in getting more books published.
Pimp My Novel is fast becoming one of my favorite blogs. I really recommend you go poke around there.
1. Completion of your novel. Congratulations! You’ve written an entire novel (~60,000 – 100,000 words)! Now go edit it. No, don’t tweet about how awesome your book is (yet). Edit.
2. Six months later… congratulations again! Between your critique group, your trusted first-readers, and your biggest editor/critic (i.e. you, at least at this point), you’ve polished your novel to a high lustre. Such a high lustre, fact, that you’ve begun using British spelling and grammar without even realising it. Ace! (Apparently you are also stuck in the 1980s.)
Have you written a truly smashing query letter yet? You have? Ace again. All mod cons, as they say. (British slang, incidentally, is weird.) Anyway—time to start querying Nathan, Janet, Kristin, Jessica, and all the rest. Cast a wide net, and remember: no exclusives!
3. Three months later… you’re still querying? Of course you are, unless you’re luckier than Malachi Constant. What, did you think this was going to be easy? Keep at it.
4. Three months after that… Hooray! After several form rejections, a few polite refusals on partials, and one or two fulls, you’ve gotten an offer of representation. (To make this as simple a scenario as possible, let’s say this is one of your dream agents and you accept the offer immediately.) Don’t start the party just yet, though. Now you’ve got real work to do.
I finished the first full draft of Volve in about 2001. I have been going back and forth between steps 2 and 3 since then. It’s been through three rewrites and three separate phases of queries. I’ve received three requests for partials and one request for a full, which was then followed by a rejection with a request to revise and resubmit. Unfortunately in the two years it took me to revise the publisher went through a major upheaval and the editor who liked my book left.
I’m still on the path, though. As of now I have a polished query letter and a long-form synopsis, as well as a rewritten manuscript that should be in final, fully-polished form sometime late this month or early next. By then I’ll also have a polished one-page synopsis and we’ll go back to the querying process.
Maybe this time I can proceed on to step four.