Here is the text of the handout distributed at Pat Brown’s presentation, Getting Published Today, at the Nov. 18, 2010, meeting of the London Writers Society. It contains a set of live links to publishers’ sites. Pat has an updated set of publisher links on her own site.
- Blurbs, synopsis and approaching agents
- If you are offered a deal, should you take the first one that comes to you or do you shop around a bit? Is there a polite way to tell a publisher, “Um, hold on, I want to see if there’s anything better first?”
- How do you get an agent interested enough in your work to want to read it?
- How do you get someone to read your work?
- What do agents look for? What increases marketability?
- Rights to your work – how does it all work?
- Agent vs. self publishing – pros and cons?
Often used as the opening of a query letter. It needs to grab an agent or editor’s attention out of the dozen or more other queries she will get that day. This is just as important as the first page of your manuscript.
Here you highlight the main plot line, introduce two or three main characters in enough detail to know who they are and what they want most and what’s keeping them from getting it. The primary conflict needs to be made clear. The ending is also included. The fastest way to irritate an agent or editor is to be coy about the ending. They need to know you can finish a story with a powerful finish. A lot of stories have great beginnings but have weak endings. Remember, the opening sells this book, the ending sells the next one.
The web has opened a huge new source for writers to find agents and check them out for their legitimacy. But when you’re new and just starting, that can be overwhelming. So start by looking in the back of books you like that are similar to yours. Writers will sometimes list their agents in the acknowledgment pages. A few will even do so on their web page. Authors and agents can be Googled once you have a name. There are a number of books that will help your search. The two most notable books that list agents are Jeff Herman’s Guide to Literary Agents and the Writer’s Market. The problem with books is they are outdated before they are even published and the world of publishing is very fluid. Another resource guide is Literary Market Place (LMP), which can be found in the central branch of the library – use the reference version, it’s newer. I used it to note all the agents who handled my genre and from there looked for web sites. Today the majority of literary agents will have web sites.
Publishers Marketplace is an excellent source. It will cost $20 a month, but in a month or two you can find most of what you want about agencies.
QueryTracker is a searchable resource. The basic membership is free. A premium membership is $20 a year. The basic will allow you to search out agents based on their genres and whether they are currently accepting queries. Once you begin finding agents you want to query, it will list whether they take email queries or snail mail only, links to their website, Publishers Marketplace page, and a link to Predators & Editors, where you can check out their legitimacy. Paying the $20 gets you the ability to search for only agents who take email queries, snail mail queries, only agents who have web sites, blogs, and Twitter. Finally, it gives you a way to record when queries are sent and what their response is. You will want to do this – after a dozen or more queries it’s easy to lose track.
Conferences are obviously more expensive, but they can be useful for many things. I have always found spending time with published and unpublished authors is inspiring. You never know who might be sitting next to you at the cocktail lounge. Writers have found future agents and publishers at these things. And seeing successful writers who are just like you and me makes you realize these people aren’t God and they started out just like the rest of us.
There are two types of conferences/conventions. The writer-centric and the fan-centric. Both offer things of value, and both may have agents present. The largest writer-centric conference is ThrillerFest in New York every July. It has two tracks aimed at writers – AgentFest track and a CraftFest track. As the name suggests, it’s geared toward crime writers. There are Romance conferences as well. The only two I’m familiar with are Romantic Times and the Romance Writers of America conference, which I understand is huge. Bouchercon is another mystery conference which is more fan-centric and Left Coast Crime another one that mixes writers and fans.
Once you’ve compiled your agent list and have a query letter that you’re happy with, you have to plan your next course of action. This is where the fun starts.
I usually send out a few test queries to agents that aren’t at the top of my list. Maybe they’re borderline on representing my genre – it’s an historical crime and they only list crime or mysteries – so I’ll send them a query and whatever they ask for. This is where agent web sites are useful. Each agent has her own preferences and it’s important to follow those or you risk an immediate rejection. I like to include a sample of the novel if possible, and many agents will ask for a certain amount – the first chapter, the first five pages, the first fifty pages, the first three chapters with a synopsis, any combination.
Very few agents will accept attachments. I prepare several text files which can be pasted into the body of the email. Why text? I’ve found a lot of email programs do not handle Word documents pasted into them well. You will get strings of gibberish which would make the sample hard to read, and few agents have time trying to figure out what it means. It’s easier to reject and go on to the next one. During the first round of read throughs – which really amount to nothing more than glancing at the first line or two – if they like it, they keep reading. If anything looks wrong – you don’t know how to write a letter, you open with the wrong material or the formatting is screwy – it gives them an excuse to toss it in the reject pile.
Agents receive dozens of queries a day. Their job is not reading queries or searching for new authors. Their job is to take care of the clients they have, to write queries to publishers, to look at a client’s manuscript, to field phone calls and emails from other professionals they deal with every day. They look for new gold in their spare time. You have to catch their eye immediately. This means the first line, the first five words have to be something that grabs them and forces them to read on. You want them to pick up the sample writing you included and be pulled in. You want them to reach for their keyboard and hit return to say “Send me the whole manuscript.” Don’t give them excuses to say no. Doing that makes their job easier, and you don’t want to do that.
I would suggest sending out five queries. If these get no requests for at least a partial, then perhaps take a look at the query, especially the first paragraph. I always look to improve my query, since in some cases agents will use the query in their submission to an editor. Sometimes they are even used on the book jacket or as the web site blurb, so it needs to be as tight and as enticing as possible. Get all the feedback you can from other writers.
Unless an agent asks for the full manuscript, do not give them an exclusive. Even then try not to, or give them a deadline of say four or five weeks, otherwise they will hang onto it and prevent you from sending it to other agents. Most agents are realistic and it’s understood you will be sending out multiple queries. The sad truth is that today a lot of agents will only respond to a query if they are interested, leaving you to wonder if the query even made it to them. Do not send out a query and sit back waiting to hear from that agent. Keep querying, and keep writing. Nothing will take your mind off the wait better than working on a new project.
What do they want? They want the next Stephanie Meyer or J.K Rowling, but in the same breath they will tell you they want a fresh, new voice. And they will reject it, because in this marketplace they can’t sell it. But if it’s too much like other books, it will be rejected for being too clichéd.
The truth is agents don’t know what they want. They are trying to anticipate the market and these days they are only looking for big sellers. Unfortunately the market for what used to be called the midlist book has all but disappeared, at least among the big New York publishers. The truth is New York is running scared. They are being battered by ebook sales, and their attempts to catch up to the smaller, nimbler publishers make their fate uncertain. There are going to be big changes in the publishing industry in the next few years. By 2015 I don’t think any of us will recognize the industry.
Do you take the first offer? If you have several partials or fulls out, I would recommend you ask the agent to give you a few days – a week would be good – then tell all the agents who have your manuscript that you have an agent who has offered you a contract and you’d like to offer them a chance to consider the manuscript you sent them. Make sure you send the query where the agent asked for the material to refresh their memory. Then you wait the week.
Once you’ve decided on an agent, or say you hit the jackpot and more than one agent wants to sign you, then what? You take a deep breath and pull out your list of questions. Questions? What questions? Surprised?
Don’t be. You and your agent are entering into a business deal. You both need to be happy with the relationship. And you need to trust her. There will be a list of resources at the end of the presentation. You also need to find an agent who understands how you think and how you like to work. You do not want an agent who imposes their work style on you, any more than you want an agent who tries to change your voice.
But the most important one might be the AAR site. The Association of Authors Representatives and their canon of ethics. Even if the agent doesn’t belong, they should follow the canons. The most important one for you in the beginning is that a legitimate agent will not charge you for anything before a sale.
This is the most important thing to write down and remember. Print it out and put it over your computer.
NEVER GIVE MONEY TO AN AGENT
A HUGE RED FLAG SHOULD GO UP IF:
- An agent tells you he needs a reading fee, processing fee or any fee of any kind.
- An agent tells you she needs fees to send copies of your manuscript out.
- An agent who charges high “office fees” – copying, mailing, phone calls.
- An agent recommends a specific editing service – these often give the agent a kickback.
- An agent has no verifiable sales.
- An agent refuses to divulge client names or sales. They may not give details about the deals they made, but an agent who won’t even list her sales probably isn’t legitimate. Those sales should be of real books to real publishers. A quick search of Amazon will give you the book and who published it.
- An agent who hasn’t had a sale in at least a year – six months would be better. No record of recent sales doesn’t look good in terms of selling your book. New agents are a gamble only you can decide on. If they have industry contacts – a lot of new agents come out of New York as editors from big houses that are laying off – then it might be worth the gamble. That’s one you have to trust your gut to.
QUESTIONS TO ASK PUBLISHERS
Does the publisher have a web store? Who are their distributors? The more markets they can penetrate, the better for you. What kind of marketing will your publisher do for you?
How do their covers look? Would you buy their books? How much say will you have in the cover?
What other authors publish with this outfit?
To print or not to print? If you want to see your book in print, don’t go with an ebook-only publisher. If you do go a print-only publisher, don’t let them tie up your ebook rights. If they aren’t going to put out an ebook, you can do it yourself or sell it to an ebook-only pub. Never tie your rights up with someone who is never going to exercise them.
Trust your gut feeling. If it feels wrong, then step back. Do more research. Find authors who are listed on the publisher’s web site. If the publisher (a) doesn’t have a web site or (b) doesn’t list any authors, I would steer clear. If you can find authors, look up their web sites and email them to ask about their experience with that publisher. Ask if they were asked to give the publisher money at any point.
How much editing can you expect?
How often do they pay royalties? Some pay monthly, some quarterly, others twice a year.
The one contract clause to avoid or watch out for? Right of first refusal. Unless they’re offering you a multi-book deal, don’t do this. Giving them right of first refusal means they can hold onto your book for months while they decide. And there’s no guarantee they’ll take it.
The average length of a contract is three years. Much more than that should raise questions.
Make sure there is a clause that if the company goes bankrupt you get your rights back – if you don’t do this, the courts can seize your work as assets and sell them for pennies, leaving you with nothing. It sounds terrible, but make sure you know what will happen if your agent or publisher dies. If they are part of a larger company, will the company keep you? If not, you need to make sure your rights revert back to you.
The first rule for writers is check them out before signing anything. Talk to other authors, check out Predators & Editors, Writers Beware and Absolute Write to see if the agent or publisher has been flagged with a warning.
The same advice given for publishers below applies to agents. Research them, and again:
NEVER GIVE MONEY TO AN AGENT
WEB SITES FOR WRITERS
Various sites by authors, agents, and publishers. They will provide information on the industry, on how to get agents or avoid the bad ones. There are thousands of writer-oriented sites, these are just a few of them. Some will charge you and others are free.
These are all small, indie publishers who vary from ebook-only to specialized in only a few genres. Research the ones that look interesting. Check out the authors they’ve published and get in touch with a few, ask them what their experience has been like. Find out how long they’ve been in business and how many authors they have in print. Most of them will be new, the ebook industry only took off recently, but a publisher who has been out a few months should have some books out. But to safeguard against a publisher’s failure, make sure your contract has a clause giving you immediate rights back if your publisher goes bankrupt. It’s also a good idea to have a clause which allows both you and your publisher the option the sever ties. Finally I would give them only the rights they will use, and keep the contract length to three years. This can always be renegotiated if both desire it at the end of the three years.
If at any time your gut warns you away, it’s safer to listen. As you can see, there are a lot of publishers to submit to, and not trusting your publisher from the start can’t lead to a good working relationship. Contact some of the publisher’s other authors. Ask them things like how easy are they to work with? Are their editors qualified? Do they give good advice? If you have questions, do they respond quickly or ignore you?
Below you will find a number of publishers who will accept agentless submissions. I have made no attempt to sort them out. You will need to research them. Some are ebook publishers only, some only handle erotic or gay fiction. Each web site will have a submission link which will tell you how to submit, and a quick look at their catalogue will show you whether what they publish matches what you write.
Another word of warning. You will probably come across Publish America in your search for a publisher. They will tell you they are a traditional, royalty-paying publisher and they won’t ask for money up front. At all costs, avoid them. They accept anyone who submits, regardless of quality, there is no editing unless you pay for it, their books are shoddily made and grossly overpriced. There are no bookstores that will carry their books. As well, their contract is onerous and will tie you up for seven years and is nearly impossible to break. They may not take any money up front, but they expect to make it on the back end by telling you that you need to buy copies and sell them yourself.
If you need proof – and a good laugh – read this site:
I would suggest joining this Yahoo group which actually has publisher pitch days, where a specific publisher will take pitches. They also have general pitch days, where your pitches go up and publishers look them over. A lot of members have had their work picked up.
171 PUBLISHER SITES
[Pat has an updated set of publisher links on her own site.]
- levelbestbooks.com (short stories only)