As I’ve mentioned in my about page, the awesome readers of this blog (that’s you!) tend to come from one of two groups: 1) writers involved in the Twitter community and 2) people who are fans of my acting career. I’m so invested in the first community that it’s sometimes easy to forget that people in the second group might not be knowledgeable about what it takes to get a book published, or what publishing options are available to writers, or what steps the process requires. Often, they are very supportive of my publishing goals and eager to read my writing, which I’m thankful for every day. So I’m frequently asked the question, “Where/when can I buy your books?”
This purely innocent question makes me sad every time I read it (and that’s never the asker’s fault). Let me explain.
I want to respond to that question with, “My first book will be released on [insert date here], and you can preorder it [here]!” Or, “Walk into any Barnes & Noble and you’ll find my work in the YA section!”
Instead, I say something along the lines of, “Thank you so much for your interest! Unfortunately, I’m still working on finding a literary agent.”
Sometimes this leads to follow-up questions or comments. “How long do you think that will take?” “I’m sure you’ll find a publisher who wants to publish your book.” “A literary what?”
Again, all well-meaning questions, and all tweeted at me with a beautiful sentiment behind it: people want to read my fiction. Trust me, guys, I’m excited for you to read it, too. If I had magic powers, I would absolutely have multiple books published right now. It’s something I’m determined to do before I die.
That being said, I think it’s important to write a post educating readers who aren’t in the know about how to publish a book. I know many of you are writers yourselves, and if you haven’t been exposed to information about this, or if you aren’t at that stage yet, this post might be valuable to you.
So, you’ve written a book. You’ve taken the time to revise it to the best of your ability, and you’ve gotten feedback from other writers. What’s next?
First, you have to decide what publishing route you want to take. One option is self-publishing. This means that everything involved with producing a book is up to you, including designing the cover and page layout, choosing a font, purchasing copies to sell, setting up a page for it on Amazon, scheduling book events, marketing the book, contacting booksellers to see if they will carry your book, and much more. From what I’ve heard, it is not for the faint of heart. It is a lot of work.
The second option is traditional publishing. This means getting a literary agent to represent your work, who will then shop your book around until it finds its home with a publisher. Most publishing houses will not look at unsolicited submissions, meaning they will only look at materials submitted by literary agents. Since it’s a literary agent’s job to cultivate relationships with other members of the publishing industry, they are incredibly valuable to have on your side. Depending on the agent and your book, they are the people most likely to land you a book deal with a powerful publishing house, or a smaller press if that’s more appropriate. And if they’ve fallen in love with your work enough to want to represent you, odds are they’re gonna fight hard to get your words published. This is the path I’ve chosen to follow.
Some people turn to self-publishing when they aren’t able to find an agent or publisher. If they’re not well-educated on the kind of commitment self-publishing takes, or they purely see self-publishing as a way to avoid the “gatekeepers” of the publishing world (more on that later), this is not a wise decision. If your motivation to self-publish sounds something like, “I’ll show those agents/publishers that they were wrong about my book!”, don’t self-publish. You should self-publish if all the work I described above is something you’re willing to take on, and if you’ve researched the traditional publishing route enough to reach the conclusion that your book would be better suited to the self-published path. None of these apply to me, which is why I’m not self-publishing.
On the flip side, some people try to find an agent after they’ve self-published their book and realized the book didn’t sell well. This is not a good strategy. It is incredibly difficult to sell a book to a publisher if the public has already seen it and not responded with anything less than overwhelming enthusiasm. I’ve read countless accounts from agents who say that if they receive a query for a book that’s already self-published, it’s an automatic pass. You’re better off querying them with a different, unpublished manuscript.
So, let’s say you’ve chosen traditional publishing like I have. I mentioned the word “query” a couple times in the last paragraph, but what is a query?
homicidal parasite that scuttled from the swamps of hell to feast on your vital organs necessary document that is crucial to submitting your manuscript to an agent for consideration.
Seriously, though, it’s a letter meant to describe your book in a way that makes the agent want to read more. It’s approximately 250 words and includes your main character, what the character wants, what the character has to do to get it, and what’s at stake if the character doesn’t accomplish this. It should also include your title, age category (such as adult or YA), genre (such as mystery or fantasy), and your manuscript’s word count. That is IT. Don’t talk about your writing process, or the themes characterizing your book, or how it’s the next Harry Potter. Don’t mention more than one or two characters by name, and don’t provide subplots or exposition about the world you created. It shouldn’t be more than a page long. Preferably, it’s shorter than that.
As you can imagine, this isn’t easy. I’ve kept almost every draft of the query I wrote for my current project in one document, and that document is 16 pages long. It took a lot of hard work, a lot of rewrites, a lot of feedback, and a lot of failure to get the query to where it is now.
Many agents look at the opening pages of your book along with your query, which means you need to work extra hard to polish those pages and make them interesting. Granted, your entire manuscript should be polished and interesting, but there’s more pressure on the first pages because it’s your book’s first impression. Sometimes, an agent will enjoy a query letter immensely, but pass because the opening pages demonstrated weak prose, or didn’t pull the agent in, or showed flat characterization, or fell victim to clichés. I’ve rewritten my current project’s opening chapter so many times I sometimes want to set it (affectionately) on fire. I can recite my opening line on cue.
The next step is to research literary agents to find some that seem like a match for your manuscript. You need to take time with this. I have a notebook exclusively dedicated to research I’ve conducted on various literary agents and tracking what I submit to them. I follow them on Twitter, read through the guidelines on their agency’s website, check to see if they’re accepting unsolicited queries at the moment (not all of them do, or sometimes they take breaks), and read as many interviews they’ve participated in as I can find. If you don’t do this, you run the risk of submitting to an agent who doesn’t represent your genre, or even just something that won’t gel with their tastes. Sometimes I’ll take copious notes on an agent, find a single interview where they say “I like fantasy, but not set in a world different from ours” (which my book is), and have to cross them off my list. That kind of stuff isn’t always listed on their agency’s website.
Once you send it off, you’ll wait anywhere from a few hours to a few months to hear back, depending on the agent. Some only respond if they’re interested, which means you might not hear back from them at all. If you do hear back, it will most likely be a rejection that agent sent after considering your work for a few minutes. Many will be form rejections, meaning not personalized.
Think that sounds unfair? Most of the time, it’s perfectly fair. Reading queries is only a small part of a literary agent’s job, and it’s usually something they do in their free time. Most of their workday is spent handling the clients they already have, which requires a lot of work and attention. As for having to wait months for a response, some agents receive literally hundreds of queries in a single day. It’s understandable that wading through them will take time, and that personalizing every single rejection is impossible. Some people struggling with rejection from agents view them as “evil gatekeepers” who don’t know a good story when they see it, but that’s not true. Literary agents are people, and often delightful people at that. They could pass on your book for a multitude of reasons–they represent too many authors of that genre, it would be a difficult book for them to sell/market, or they simply didn’t connect with your story. It doesn’t always mean your book isn’t good.
The only instance in which a literary agent’s response may be unfair is if they’re (consciously or not) not willing to represent your story because of your race, sexuality, transgender identity, or disability, or if your character(s) reflect any of these. In an industry that is overwhelmingly white, female, straight, cisgender, and able-bodied/neurotypical, these voices are underrepresented on agent client lists, in bookstores, and behind the scenes. This is an enormous, complex topic by itself, so I’ll only mention it briefly here.
As you can see, just getting a literary agent is immensely difficult. It’s the stage I’m at now, which is why you can’t buy my books anywhere. Even if you do get an agent, there’s no guarantee a publishing house will buy your book. And even if a book does get published, there’s no guarantee it will sell well. When you try to publish your book, you enter a world of uncertainty, rejection, self-doubt, and lots of waiting at every part of the process.
That’s about it for that explanation, but, given my unusual former-child-actress situation, there are a few more things I want to address.
Some of my Twitter followers see me as a famous person purely because I’ve been on TV/in movies. I don’t agree with that–I can spend a full day in public without getting recognized, for one thing, and the overwhelming majority of people don’t know who I am just by my face or name. However, because of this misperception, some people overestimate how much power I have. They think I can walk into a publishing house, ask for my book to be published, and it will be done.
If you’ve reached this part of the post, you know by now that this isn’t true. My acting situation only changes my seeking-a-literary-agent process in two ways:
- My blog, Twitter, Instagram, etc. get a LOT more exposure than they would if I’d never acted. A large portion of my followers enjoyed my acting career and that was what drew them to me in the first place, even if that’s not always why they stayed. All I had to do when I started my social media accounts was put “former child actress” in my bio and I got an automatic leg-up. I also benefited from sites like Cosmopolitan and Buzzfeed publishing “where are they now?” pieces that linked to my profiles. To be clear, none of this will make a literary agent want to represent me by itself. All it does is widen my audience, allowing agents to see that my words are already reaching people and making it more likely that an agent will notice me before I ever query them, or whether or not I ever query them at all. Many agents encourage their clients to establish a social media presence, so they will be happy to see I’ve checked off that box. Again, though, they’ll only care about this if they’re already interested in my story and my writing.
- I get to mention my acting credits in the bio section of my query. Generally, this is just an interesting fact about me that might get some agents to think, “That’s kinda cool.” But if they aren’t sold on my query and/or opening pages, they won’t care about this beyond the “that’s kinda cool” factor.
Those are the much-appreciated benefits I get from having acted as a kid. Other than that? I’m just an average writer with average odds of finding a literary agent and selling my books. I don’t get to snap my fingers and find a book deal in my palm. I have to put in the work.
For those who want more information on this subject, here’s a list of valuable resources for writers:
- Fizzygrrl.com – Blog run by my awesome writer friend, Summer Heacock. All of her publishing-related posts are super helpful, and the posts covering other topics are always hilarious.
- The Daily Dahlia – Blog run by author Dahlia Adler. Her posts are incredibly helpful to anyone remotely interested in the publishing industry, and she recommends more books than anyone I’ve ever seen.
- Absolute Write Forums – Community for writers at any stage of the process, whether you’ve never written a word or you’re looking for an agent.
- Preditors and Editors – To make sure the agent you’re querying/publisher you’re using/etc. isn’t scamming you, check if they’re listed here. Scammers are super good at targeting writers who wanna be published, so always check here before submitting to someone. Not every agent is mentioned here, especially if they’re new, but most legitimate agencies are listed. If your agent is a new agent at a legitimate agency, you’re good.
- Writer Beware – Another good resource for agents/publishers that might be scams.
- MSWL – Stands for “manuscript wish list,” based on a popular Twitter hashtag. If you’re curious what kinds of projects an agent, editor, or publisher is interested in, their #MSWL tweets are compiled here. The hashtag and site were created by literary agent Jessica Sinsheimer.
- QueryTracker – I use this site to track the queries I’ve sent to agents, and to read feedback other writers have received from said agents. It lists agent e-mails and genres as well, but it’s not always updated, so it’s best to double check that information on the agent’s/agency’s website.
- Query Advice from Author and Literary Agent John Cusick – For those wanting to write a query letter, this post is incredibly helpful, and much more thorough than my explanation above. Plus, I met John at the Midwest Writers Workshop in 2013, and he’s a super nice guy.
This is by no means a complete list, but I hope it’s helpful.
So, where and when can you buy my books? The answer, for now, is “in my wildest dreams.” If my work pays off and that ends up changing, trust me, you will know, because I will be very excited and exploding the news all over my blog/Twitter/Instagram/living room.
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