In 2013, I self-published my first novel, Hawser. I expected that I would sell a few of them and then get picked up by one of the traditional publishers who would doubtless be beating down my door. A large box arrived at my house containing five proof copies. Eagerly, I cracked them open and was appalled at the myriad typos, formatting errors, blank pages, etc.etc. And then as I read the book for the twentieth time, I began to realize what every writer from Chaucer to Nathan Hill has learned: I need an editor. Not just a line editor or a copy editor. I need an editor editor. I need a Max Perkins or a Ford Madox Ford. Dear God, even a Gordon Lish.
Ford Madox Ford looks remarkably like Leon right before he gets upset about his mother.
But such people do not come cheaply, and their services are standalone. They are mercenary beings as powerless in the world of publication as I am myself. To be one of a yearly million new Amazon titles is not exactly publishing. Nobody will review it, and nobody will sell it. This means that almost nobody will read it. And if nobody reads it, the rationale for writing it is seriously in doubt. Most self-publishing success comes from either blind luck or months of toil. Andy Weir’s The Martian was an overnight success years in the making. He has said that most of the hardest work came after the book was finished. Marketing, marketing, marketing. Blogging, emailing, sending free copies, begging, pleading.
The bitter lesson is this: If one wishes to expand the readership beyond a circle of friends or the local public librarian who grudgingly took a copy and buried it in the stacks, the way to do it is still traditional publishing.
SS Traditional Publishing. Amazon submarine not pictured
Yes, I know. Publishing is on the ropes. Nobody reads. Airport books are all written by James Patterson and Dan Brown. Creative Writing MFAs are cranking out literary writers like Denny’s makes pancakes. There’s no money in it. Blah blah blah. There actually still is a vibrant traditional publishing industry outside of the big five. Small presses, satellite publications and other independent scrappers are out there churning away. Sure, the margins are smaller, but people still need stories. They want to read them. And the stories are out there. Great books are still being written. I read two excellent novels that were written last year, novels that came from traditional publishers.
So my goal for this new year is to get my latest novel Miramar published. Revolutionary Cuba is timely and interesting, and the story of corporate corruption overthrown by equally corrupt populist socialism might resonate with people today. In order to do this, I need an agent in there swinging for me. My friend Alex just started a blog, so I thought I’d write a post about querying agents.
I took an Iowa Summer Writer’s Festival class last year where an experienced author talked about how to write a query. There are hundreds of books about it also, so I won’t go into it except to say that query needs to demonstrate that you can
a. write, and
b. tell a story.
Good queries are short and engaging. It’s also crucial to follow the rules set out on the agency site. They get thousands a year, a giant inbox packed with turds and turds and turds. Whatever intern or slave who is in charge of gatekeeping is more than eager to immediately reject you so they can get on to the next unreadable piece of shit about lesbian Mormon vampire zombies.
But they are also eager to bring home a big fish. If you can gain their advocacy right away, you stand in good stead to move up the chain. The crowning glory is a request for the full manuscript.
As I said, you can learn all about how to jump out of the slush pile with just a little effort on your part. Be prepared to suck for a while, too. Nobody ever does it right the first time. Remember, rejection is your friend––but only if you are willing to learn from it.
And be prepared to be googled. A blog, a twitter account and (dear lord) a Facebook page are all base expectations. Like it or not, you’re a product. The days of Pynchon leaving a typed manuscript on a hollow tree for his agent to find are long over (and that old story is likely bullshit anyway. I mean, can you imagine Mason & Dixon in manuscript form? It was probably a foot thick.)
One last thing: QueryTracker is worth its weight in gold, especially if you follow Writer’s Digest to find out which agents are new and especially hungry. Good hunting.