From the Beginning

From the Beginning: Advice for Aspiring Pro Writers
by Kelley Eskridge

Kelley’s note: I’ve put this here in response to the many questions I get from people who are interested in more information about the process of getting an agent and publishing a first novel. It’s a consolidation of my experience and that of writers I know personally, so it doesn’t represent the entire spectrum of what can happen. This is the view from my corner of the playground.

The only way to learn to write is to write a lot. It’s not magic, it’s work. Read. Read read read. Write. Write write write. Have a life and then put it into your work. Don’t give up. Be rigorous. Look at your work as honestly as you can. Figure out what you need to learn next, and then go learn it. Be proud of what you learn, and then go learn more. Welcome constructive criticism and forget the bullshit — not everyone is qualified to advise you how to write better. Learn the lessons of writing a story, then let that story go if necessary, and move on. You don’t have to sell everything you write. Not selling everything you write does not make you a failure, it makes you a writer.

Get support and feedback. Find writer friends, a writer’s group, workshops, or classes. Find people you trust to give you feedback on your work. When you are a beginning writer, it doesn’t matter if your feedback people work in your genre, or share your style. What matters is that they respect your genre and style, and that they know more about writing than you do. Workshopping only with people at your level will not help you. Friends and family are fine if they know something about writing and are capable of giving you meaningful feedback. “I thought it was good” or “I didn’t really get it” are not meaningful feedback. You’re looking for specific comments about what works and what doesn’t, and specific suggestions for how to fix it. You’re looking for concrete tools and techniques, like the ones found in this list from Pat Holt. And you’re looking for the worldview, the heart-view, the fundamental truths, like those found in the essay “The Talent of the Room” by Michael Ventura.

I learned to write by writing and publishing short fiction, and it was a good way for me, but some people start with novels. Mileage varies. You have to find your own way into the learning. But please note that the agent/publishing advice that follows is geared toward selling novels, not short fiction.

It’s practically impossible to get novel-length fiction published through a major publisher without an agent. Most publishers (although not all) refuse to consider unagented submissions. It’s the agent’s job to know the field, have personal contacts at publishing houses, be known to editors, and act as your intermediary for submission, contract negotiation, and any business disputes that might arise. For this service, your agent takes 15% of everything you make on the book, and possibly charges you for FedEx and photocopying. But a good agent will A) get you to the right person at the right house, and B) make more money for you, with better terms than you can get on your own.

Very few agents agree to take on new clients based on a good idea. They can’t sell an idea to a publisher. What they can sell is a product. An agent will typically ask for A) a query letter outlining your work, or B) a sample of your work, normally the first three chapters plus a detailed outline.

The purpose of a query letter is to introduce yourself, describe your professional credentials, and summarize your project. If you submit chapters and outline, make sure the outline includes information about the book’s plot, characters, structure, voice/point of view, and suggested marketing. There are many books and online resources that can tell you how to write queries and outlines (length, emphasis, etc.) Writer’s Digest Books (including Writer’s Market) is a good resource for information about handling the query and submission process professionally.

If she asks for a query only, don’t send her your whole manuscript. If she asks for three chapters, don’t send your whole manuscript.

Different agents have different specialties and strengths. An agent who doesn’t know anything about the market you want to work in (mainstream, speculative fiction, romance, mystery, whatever) may be a great agent, but not for you. Some agents work solo, and some work as part of a larger agency that represents literary, film, other creative. There’s no one right choice — you need to do your homework and decide what’s best for you. There are a couple of different strategies to identify potential agents that might be right for you:

A) Spend some time at bookstores or the library and find 10 or so books that you feel are comparable to yours. “Comparable” is a subjective term, but ideally the books you identify will have some quality of story or packaging that you think makes it similar to your book. If more than one book is by the same author, so much the better. The goal is to find books that you think are like yours and have been well-placed.

B) Google the writer’s name + “agent”. The writer may have a website that names their agent, or you may find another reference. If you do, great-there’s an agent that you may wish to contact.

C) If you can’t find information the new-fangled way, you will have to resort to telephone or US mail. Contact the publisher (usually the publicity department) and explain you want to find out who the agent of Writer X is.

D) Research the agency online or through marketplace tools such as Writer’s Market (which you can also find in the reference section of your library).

As a side note, the best online industry reference I know is Publisher’s Marketplace. Parts of the site are only accessible by subscription, but there’s plenty of free information, including agents, book deals, and a daily newsletter called Publisher’s Lunch.

When you are ready to make contact, check the agency’s website or Writer’s Market for contact information and submission guidelines. Some agencies want you to send just a letter, and some want the manuscript sample on initial contact. If you’re not sure, call the agency receptionist and ask (they get a million calls like this a day).

Some agencies ask you to send your submission exclusively to them, and others indicate that simultaneous submissions to multiple agencies are okay. This one is your call, depending on your comfort level. An agent who wants to represent you is not going to cut you off because she finds out that someone else has seen the proposal. But an agent who is on the fence might. Sometimes writers use the club of “someone else wants to sign me” to try to force an agent into moving faster. This usually doesn’t work, and agents don’t like it.

The agent will review your proposal and, if they are professional, will contact you either way (yes or no). It’s fine to follow up by phone or email after a stated period of time (usually 4 to 6 weeks, but some agencies specify a longer period, depends on their workload). It’s also fine to follow up with someone who rejects you and ask if they would be willing to spend a few minutes telling you how you can strengthen your proposal. They may say “no,” but they may give you some valuable information.

This can be a lengthy process. Don’t despair. Keep going. Aim high. Remember, some rejection feedback is valuable and some of it is just damn stupid.

If an agent wants to represent you, they will let you know. But don’t jump. Take the time to talk with the agent by phone or email. Ask about their communication style, their knowledge of publishers you are interested in, or whatever other questions may be important to you. The author-agent relationship is crucial — this person is representing you professionally, and your image in publishing is to some extent bound up with theirs. But most important is that the two of you have compatible working styles. You have to put a lot of trust in this person to represent you effectively, and if you don’t work well together it’s a recipe for disaster.

When an agent agrees to represent you, she will ask you to sign a standard agency contract in which you agree to let the agent represent all your novel-length work and take 15% (often up to 25% on international sales). Then the agent should discuss with you whether she thinks further rewriting is needed, where she will be sending your proposal, and how she will pitch the book to editors (she’s write a cover letter, and/or talk up the book in person or by phone or email).

Your novel needs to be at least partly written before you begin to shop it. You don’t sell an idea (unless maybe you are Stephen King); you sell a product. It’s almost impossible to overemphasize this. Back in the day, agents and editors and publishers looked for potential that they could help nurture and grow. This can still happen, but it’s no longer the primary operative model. An editor is not going to buy your novel because it might be good someday, she is going to buy it because she thinks she can sell it now. You must go out to agents and editors with your best work in hand.

There are plenty of reasons that agents and editors will reject your work — it doesn’t fit their line, they already have ten like it, it’s brilliant but unmarketable, etc. You will always have another chance with these people. But sending half-assed work to agents and editors wastes everyone’s time. They are not going to care about your amazing raw talent. They are going to care that you either can’t do the work, or can’t be bothered to do it. Neither of those perceptions is a win for you.

Impatience is not your friend. Take the time to make it the best you can. Get the feedback and do the rewrites.

It’s also important to know that most agents, editors and publishers may not be interested in helping you build your career. They are certainly interested in helping you establish a successful sales track record, but they aren’t necessarily going to advise you about artistic direction, career choices, changing genres, etc. purely in terms of your development as an artist. It’s up to you to have your own ideas about your values, your vision for your book(s) and career, etc. These people can advise you about the potential consequences of your choices, but don’t look to them for long-term mentorship. If you find it, great, but don’t expect it.

Publishers don’t buy books — editors do. The editorial relationship is just as important as the agent relationship. The editor is your in-house champion and liaison to the marketing, sales, publicity, art and production teams. If she is competent and credible, respected in the house and in the industry, your book will do better. This doesn’t mean you shouldn’t sell to an Assistant Editor who’s never made a buy before — it just means you should understand that she may not command the same amount of internal attention for the book as a more senior person would, and that this can affect the book’s performance in the marketplace.

When an editor is interested in the book, she will call your agent and make an offer. Be prepared for this offer to be a lot less than you would like. Publishing is not the place to make megabucks, as a rule. It can happen, but 99% of the time it doesn’t.

You and your agent will discuss the verbal offer, which will include an advance against royalties, a royalty schedule, and what rights the publisher wants to acquire.

Here’s an example of a typical royalty schedule for a hardcover novel:
10% of cover price on the first 5,000 copies
12.5 % of cover on 5,001-10,000 copies
15% of cover above 10,000 copies.

What this means is that, for example, for Solitaire I earn $2.50 each for the first 5,000 hardcovers, $3.13 each on the next 5,000, and $3.75 on all copies after that. If I net 10,000 copies, I can expect to earn a total of $28,150, less 15% commission to my agent, and less income tax (which self-employed people like writers pay proportionally more of, because we must pay both the employer’s and employee’s contribution toward Social Security).

These are earnings on net sales, which means number sold minus the number returned by the bookstores. Publishing is the only business I know of in which the product is completely returnable in this way. This is a hideous business model that often bites the author and publisher in the ass. For example, a corporate buyer at Barnes & Noble gets excited about your book and orders 5,000 hardcovers to be distributed among all the national stores. On the strength of this order, the publisher adds 5,000 copies or more to the print run. If the B&N stores sell those books, great. If they don’t, B&N will cheerfully send them back to the publisher, who will eventually destroy them and take a writeoff. In the meantime, the author’s sell-through record is damaged and the publisher takes a financial hit. For the bookstores, this is a bit like ordering a $100 bottle of wine, deciding you’d really rather have beer instead, sending the bottle back and getting a refund on what you haven’t drunk. Not so good for the restaurant or the winemaker.

A typical trade paperback royalty is 7.5% of cover price on all copies sold, and on mass market paperbacks 8% up to 100,000 copies, 10% thereafter. This means less money to the author per copy (since the cover prices are lower), but trade paperback and mass market paperbacks will sell more units, so it’s entirely possible to do better financially with a trade paperback or mass market original than with a hardcover.

The publisher pays the writer an advance against these royalties. The advance is paid in chunks — a large percentage when you sign a contract, another payment when the final draft is accepted, and a final (smaller) payment on publication. You get to keep this money even if you don’t sell enough copies to earn it. If the publisher had paid me $100,000 advance for Solitaire (laughing hysterically) and I had sold only 1,000 copies, they would show a huge loss for the book, especially considering the overhead and marketing/publicity costs that get added to the cost of goods. So the matter of advances becomes a giant game, with the author fighting for as much money as she can get and the publisher trying to estimate how the book will really do so they don’t screw up their own bottom line. It’s not always to an author’s advantage to get a huge advance, if the book does poorly; and an author who consistently takes too-small advances is leaving money on the table and underselling herself in other ways.

You finish the book and turn it in to your editor. She reads it and gives you comments for rewriting. Once the rewrite process is completed, your manuscript disappears into the system, and it can be 9 to 18 months before it emerges as a book. Many writers take their hands off the wheel at this point, and many editors encourage this. My preference is to work with editors and publishers who are willing to continue to involve the writer to an appropriate extent, assuming the writer behaves professionally. This interview with Broad Universe has details about my experience with the “internal marketing” of a book.

There’s more to talk about — print runs, sell through expectations, returns, royalty statements, post-publication publicity, awards… and on it goes. But not now (smile). If you’ve read this far, I hope this information is helpful to you. Discussion welcome here, or we can start a conversation in the blog.

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