What Sort of Publishing Is Right For You?

In my last post, I wrote about the results of a large though unscientific survey of authors, which revealed a high level of dissatisfaction around the areas of marketing, sales and income. This struck me as profoundly unsurprising, almost a tautology.  Dissatisfaction goes with the territory. During the 15 years I spent as an agent and editor, I never met a writer who was completely satisfied with his or her publisher’s efforts, whether they were great or small. It’s like inspecting a house after a cleaning crew has come and gone. No matter how good a job they’ve done, you always notice what they missed.

So that aspect of the survey was not at all surprising. What struck me as I read is the fact that writers today have so many more choices than they had in the past. More writers are making a living than ever before, particularly “hybrid writers” whose books are both published and self-published. Mid-list writers dropped by their publishers are no longer silenced forever. Backlist books don’t recede into memory; they can live forever in e-book form. Short stories and novellas are no longer unsellable. Writers with an entrepreneurial bent can now publish their own work, undertaking the risks but also standing to reap much greater reward if the books do well.

overcoming barriersBut having choices can be confusing, and aspiring writers need to think carefully about which choice is most likely to get them where they want to go. If you read that last post and wondered what to do with that information, I’m going to suggest some guidelines here. They will vary according to writers’ goals and the genre in which they write.

The simplest case is the writer who aspires to write literary fiction, to be reviewed and discussed in mainstream media, and to be considered for the major literary awards. That writer needs the validation and support of a mainstream publisher who can get his book reviewed and sold into bookstores and libraries, because serious review attention is necessary to make those books discoverable. Literary fiction published independently has not been shown to sell well at all, and those writers may end up losing money after paying for editing, cover design and other necessary services.

The question becomes more complicated when it comes to genre fiction writers. Most writers, I believe, are still best served by trying first for mainstream commercial publishing house via a literary agent. It’s not an easy road. The search for an agent can take many, many submissions and often a number of rewrites; and finding an agent is only the start of an even longer process. Some writers are drawn to self-publishing out of fear of rejection, but that’s a fear that really should be overcome. Most published writers have gone through multiple rejections and lived to tell the tale; sometimes those rejections have worked to their benefit, as I discuss in this post. But the advantages of being commercially published are many. Most books will be published in multiple formats, not just e-books, and sold into brick and mortar stores. The more outlets one’s book has, the more chance it will be discovered and read. Being published by a major house is a learning experience and an opportunity to create a loyal readership that will carry over to self-published work should you decide to go the hybrid route. There are other advantages to mainstream publishing as well, too many to reprise here; if you’d like to see them, check out this post and this one.

Things are changing rapidly in publishing, and I don’t claim to be ahead of the game. But here is my current best advice for aspiring writers of romance, science fiction, cozy mysteries, Westerns and the many subgenres within those categories.

  1. Write the absolute best book you can, and then follow the steps outlined here to improve it.
  2. While writing the book, begin researching literary agents and put together a list of at least 50 to 60 agents who would be suitable for your book.
  3. Write a killer query letter and start submitting. (See also Agent Query and Janet Reid’s blog.)  Don’t submit to all the agents on your list at once. Submit to 5 to 10 agents at a time, to allow for tweaks to the query letter if your first try isn’t getting a good response.
  4. While your book is on submission, work on the next book.The_philosopher
  5. If self-publishing is a path you would consider, start educating yourself. There is a tremendous amount to learn if you end up going that route, and many writers have been generous in sharing their process and results. The Absolute Write forum is a good place to start. What you learn may help you decide whether self-publishing is right for you.
  6. Put together a list of smaller commercial publishers who accept submissions directly from writers.  By commercial publishers I mean those who publish your work at their own expense, whether or not they pay advances. In some cases, those books will come out in e-book form only, some with a POD option as well. But be careful! There are now many so-called publishers who require that writers cover the expense of publishing. They like to claim that they have come up with a new model of cooperative publishing, but in fact they are all variations on vanity publishers who have been around forever. Seek out publishers who consistently have books on Kindle’s bestseller list.
  7. If you have submitted to 50 or 60 agents and found no takers, it’s time to make a choice. There are three basic ways to go.fork in roadA.  If you’re determined to be published by a major house or to build a career as a hybrid writer, you should withdraw the book, hire a good editor, do some rewriting and resume submitting to agents. Or chalk that first book up to experience and go on to write the next, which will be better.

    B. You can submit directly to that list of smaller commercial publishers, aka indies. This is a good option for writers who feel their forte is writing, not publishing. Small publishers can usually do more effective promotion and marketing for your book then you can on your own, and they usually pay a larger royalty on e-books than the big five houses: 50% versus 25% currently. But self-publishers keep about 70% (the distributor, Amazon or other, takes the rest), so you should be clear on what exactly those small publishers will be doing for your book to earn their share. A similar possibility is to enter a contest that offers the winner a publishing contract with a reputable publisher. If you win, the contract you are offered may be less than optimal; but it is a foot in the door. In addition, some major paperback imprints like Tor have “open submission“ windows during which unagented writers can submit directly.man reading contract

    Writers who choose option B need to be wary of sharks in the water. A lot of vanity publishers present themselves as “publishing partners” or the like, and many contests exist only for the sake of the entry fee. Writers Beware and Absolute Write have good websites to do that research.

    C.  You can dive straight into the pool of self-publishers. By the time you make this decision, you should have spent months researching the field, so that you know how to proceed, what to watch out for, and how to give your work the best possible chance.  Generally speaking, self-publishing is a good option for entrepreneurial souls who are willing to learn or contract for all the services that a publisher would normally provide, including editing, proofreading, design, promotion and marketing. It works best for writers of genre fiction series who can write very quickly and put out multiple books per year. If you choose option C, and you are writing a series, I would strongly recommend that you don’t start publishing until you have three books finished and ready to go. A singleton, tossed into the vast sea of self-published titles, doesn’t have much of a chance; but you can build readership by publishing books in series released just a month or two apart. You can also discount one title to promote all the others.

    When  I first started out, the only option open to writers was the traditional route of literary agents and commercial publishers. I still think that for most writers, it is the best way to go if they have that opportunity. But it’s no longer the only good option; and the existence of other possibilities and paths open to writers will ultimately tilt the balance of power between publishers and writers just a little bit toward the writers’ side; and that’s a good thing.

     

    Subscribe to this blog via links at right for irregular but, I hope, interesting stuff about the writing biz. Better yet, read A DANGEROUS FICTION, which is both a mystery and an insider’s guide to publishing.

Rejection: Good for the Writer’s Soul?

 

There’s a schism in the writing world. Messianic advocates of self-publishing tout its benefits; skeptical opponents counter with the lack of all the services provided by preacherpublishers. As a novelist, blogger, and former literary agent, I’ve read countless iterations of both positions, which keep changing as self-publishing evolves. Just a few years ago, publishing and self-publishing were separate worlds; now they’re developing a symbiotic relationship, each feeding off the other. Success in self-publishing can lead to multi-book contracts with major publishers; while many published authors, formerly sidelined as “midlist” authors, are reviving their careers and making good money through self-publishing. A new species is emerging: hybrid writers with a foot in each camp.

As the tools available to self-publishers continue to develop, they may overcome many of the industry’s current deficits. But the greatest drawback to self-publishing is one that can never be overcome, because it is intrinsic to the enterprise: the lack of rejection.

Before the advent of simple, do-it-yourself e-publishing, when publishers ruled the planet, rejection was an inescapable part of the writer’s existence. Most published novelists were turned down many times, often on multiple books, before breaking into print. Most “first” novels passed through a gauntlet of rejection by agents and publishers before finding a home.  No one got through unscathed.

Rejection isn’t some sort of japish frat hazing we can all laugh about later. It hurts badly and over time has a cumulative effect on the writer’s psyche. Many give up. Depression is common. John Kennedy O’Toole committed suicide at the age of 31, due in part to repeated rejections of his novel, A CONFEDERACY OF DUNCES, which was published years later and won a posthumous Pulitzer Prize. Some writers go a little crazy, or a lot. I wrote about one such writer in A DANGEROUS FICTION, but it happens in real life, too. Last year, a West Coast literary agent was stalked and attacked by a disgruntled writer.

Connoisseurs of rejection, aka writers, know that not all rejections are the same. They fall into three basic categories:

crazyHomicidal. One publisher called Nabokov’s  Lolita “overwhelmingly nauseating” and recommended that it be buried under a stone for a thousand years. Another predicted that Mailer’s The Deer Park would “set publishing back 25 years.” When Hunter Thompson was responsible for evaluating submissions to Rolling Stone magazine, he wrote one rejection letter that started with “You worthless, acid-sucking piece of illiterate shit! Don’t ever send this kind of brain-damaged swill here again. If I had the time, I’d come out there and drive a fucking wooden stake into your forehead,” and went downhill from there.

Unhelpful.  These include form letters (“We regret that your work does not quite suit our list…”) and, cruelest of all, silence.

 “Close but no cigar.” These “good rejections” come with useful notes from the agent or editor and sometimes an invitation to revise and resubmit. They’re a sign that the work is almost but not quite where it needs to be.

Rejection hurts. The more you’ve put into a book, the more it hurts. And yet I suspect that rejection is the cod liver oil of the writer’s diet. It tastes vile but can have salutary effects.

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First, insomuch as it acts as a spur to revision, rejection is a functional part of the artistic process.  Good writers are always just a hair’s breadth away from becoming better writers, and the necessity to go back time and again at a piece of writing can be precisely the impetus that’s needed.  I had the rare opportunity, early in my career, of sitting down with an editor who had rejected my second novel, CAFÉ NEVO, and learning exactly why. It was the first real editorial feedback I’d ever had, and though the meeting didn’t last long—half an hour or so–the conversation opened my eyes. I rewrote the novel. It  sold it to another publisher and received wonderful reviews and praise from writers like Alan Sillitoe, Madeleine L’Engle and Alice Hoffman–none of which would have happened without the input  of the editor who’d rejected it.

The lure of self-publishing can abort this process, to the detriment of both writers and readers. When J.K. Rowling started writing the Harry Potter novels, self-publishing was not an option. She spent five years planning the series and writing the first book. A literary agent made editorial suggestions, which she implemented. The revised book was rejected by a dozen publishers until Bloomsbury bought it for £1500, at which point it underwent further editing. The book so many millions of readers came to love, which launched a series and an empire, was a much improved version of the draft Rowling had finished years earlier. What would have happened, how much would have been lost, if she’d self-published her first draft straight to Kindle?

tigerSecond, the gatekeepers so despised by self-publishing advocates serve an essential role in the publishing ecology. Acting as super-predators, literary agents and editors thin the herd of writers, eliminating those who lack ability and/or stamina— both are needed—and toughening the hides of the survivors.  “Talent is helpful in writing,” Jessamyn West wrote, “but guts are absolutely essential.”

The_philosopherThird, not all novels need to be published. Writing’s like any craft: it takes talent, time and a lot of practice to get good at it, and there’s usually a period of apprenticeship. Most published writers have an early unpublished manuscript or two tucked away in a drawer, and they’ve lived to tell the tale. The brilliant writer Edward Whittemore completed seven novels before selling one: not an apprenticeship one would wish on any writer, but it demonstrates the devotion bordering on obsession that characterizes the breed.

One might argue that self-published writers have had their share of rejection; that’s why they self–publish. That’s not entirely true, since some writers are self-publishing by choice. Most first-time novelists, though, have indeed tried and failed to find publishers. If rejection is an unpleasant but salutary part of the writer’s journey, why hasn’t it worked its magic on them?

The answer is that there are limits to what rejection and revision can do. A fairy godmother can turn a pumpkin into a coach, but you’ve got to have the pumpkin. A person can pour heart and soul into a novel and still end up with something only a mother could pumpkinread. As anyone who has ever sloshed through an agent’s slush pile will tell you, most first novels can’t be salvaged. If it pleases those authors to self-publish electronically, at least no trees will be killed in the process, and no one will stand between their books and potential readers.

The fundamental problem with self-publishing is not that bad books are published, but that good ones are published prematurely: books that could have been better, even great, if the writer had worked harder on them, for years if necessary, until they were good enough to sell, and then worked on them some more with the help of a first-class editorial team.  Self-publishing offers instant gratification. You write a book, and a month or two later it’s in your hands or on your screen. The process of selling to a mainstream publisher takes much longer, risks rejection, and often requires multiple revisions, but the result is a better book. Isn’t that what writers want?

 

Well, that and sales, too. As the holidays roar down on us, I will join in the chorus of heavenly pitches and mention that books make the very best presents; and I happen to have a few out there for the readers on your list. I’d also like to thank the San Francisco Book Review for their early present: a wonderful 5-star review of A DANGEROUS FICTION that called it “a terrific mystery novel, told with warmth and snarky wit.”

An Unorthodox Path to Publication

I love it when my students go forth and publish. They do all the work, and I claim all the credit.

Well, almost all. All except part where they work their butts off and never give up and spend years learning the craft every way they can, until publishers are clamoring to publish them and agents to represent them.

On that note, allow me to introduce my guest blogger, Amara Royce, whose first novel, NEVER TOO LATE, was published in May 2013 by eKensington, and whose second is under contract to the same publisher.  It’s a pleasure to welcome her to In Cold Ink.

 AmaraRoyce2

First, thanks so much, Barbara, for inviting me to be a guest on your wonderful blog! I always find your posts valuable, and I hope I can provide even a fraction of your insightfulness from my newbie-ish perspective in the publishing industry!

Note: I took one of Barbara’s fiction writing courses online through Writer’s Digest a few years ago. She’s an amazing teacher, as well as a fabulous author!

Never Too Late e bookI readily admit that my experience in publishing thus far probably doesn’t appear typical. My historical romance, NEVER TOO LATE, was my first completed novel. In June of 2012, I began querying agents for NEVER TOO LATE. By September, a mere three months later, I’d obtained both a two-book deal with eKensington and three offers for agent representation. It was quite a whirlwind. In fact, I still haven’t really recovered.

But as we writers know, the devil is in the details. Taking a look at my own writer’s journey thus far, I’ve arrived at three observations that are not especially new or *cough* novel but that I think are important for me and perhaps for other writers to keep in mind on the road to getting published.

Writing is hard work

hard laborWhile it’s true that my first completed novel garnered a book deal, I actually began writing in 2006 in a completely different genre. Learning to be a good writer is hard work! And it’s not a linear process. I’ve had a lot of false starts and done a lot of writing just to learn the craft of writing. And knowing about the craft of writing isn’t the same as actually doing the writing part well. For instance, I now know that some newbie writers tend to start their story in the wrong spot, with backstory that would really fit better later in the story, if at all. In some cases, writers could cut the first three chapters of their manuscript and find that the event in chapter 4 is really a more compelling place to open the story, a much more engaging draw for readers. Still, knowing that tip is very different from writing the story. I’ve had to cut and restart more stories than I want to recall!

And, as a learning process, it never really ends. I look back on some of my early efforts and have to laugh at their roughness. Frankly, I look back on something I wrote last month and know I’m going to have to fix it! And I know that everything I write, as unfinished and raw as it might be, helps me improve as a writer. Sure, I had to shelve that short story or gut this chapter or set aside that stale idea for my next novel, but that’s all part of the process.

There’s a heck of a lot to learn about the craft of writing and even more to learn about the way publishing works. Learning to write query letters, for example, is a whole different process than learning to write fiction. That subject would require a whole separate post!

Writing makes me vulnerable

shameAt every step of the writing and publishing process, fear and doubt have been my constant companions. I teach English at a community college so getting published actually strengthened my sympathy for my students. Whenever they submit essays and other writing projects, they leave themselves open to judgment, to grading. Even if they aren’t writing something personal, they are subjecting themselves to criticism (which I try to do as gently as I can). The querying process crystallized that vulnerability for me in new ways. Thanks to querytracker.net, I now know that I had a 30% request rate from agents so I know exactly how much rejection I received along the way (28 rejections from 41 queries). Do I have a compelling story? Is my writing any good? Is my story sell-able? Am I just deluding myself? Oh, so many self-doubts reared their ugly heads as those rejections rolled in.

Moreover, sharing my manuscripts with beta readers, with my agent, with my editor, and finally with the reading public lays that work out for judgment over and over and over again. (I use the present tense here very deliberately. I continue to face this judgment daily.)

I thought the self-doubt during the query process was bad, but having my work out there for readers to *buy*…is absolutely terrifying!  Even after all the editing and feedback, I can’t help but wonder what I missed, what I did wrong, what I should have done better. People who know me are inclined to be gentle with their criticism; readers who are spending their hard-earned money and reviewers whose job is to serve those readers and not to mind author’s egos have no such compunction about gentleness. Nor should they. NEVER TOO LATE has received some really lovely reviews that I treasure; it’s also received some harsh reviews that are painful, that cut to the heart of my worst fears as a writer, but that will help me continue to grow as a writer. All the self-doubt, the vulnerability, is just part of the experience of being published that I have to manage for myself.

Writing is worth the effort

VictoryAs difficult as the journey to publication may be, I have to say that, for me, it’s worth every second. Every stage of publication has been wondrously surreal for me.

Note: What I did is generally not recommended. After querying agents for a couple of months, I got a teensy bit impatient and queried some publishers that accept unagented submissions. I still don’t recommend it. Yes, it’s a case of “Do as I say, not as I do.” If you want an agent to represent your work and to strive to sell it to the best publisher possible, focus on that first. I just happened to go a slightly different route.

My “The Call” story is a little unusual in that I got “The Call” from my editor at Kensington with a two-book offer for their eKensington imprint before I had agent representation. In fact, when Kensington’s editor-in-chief, John Scognamiglio first called me, my mother was coming to visit my family for a week and I was on my way to pick her up at the station. Yes, I was driving. I know, I know. My only excuse for picking up is that I thought maybe it was my mother with an important travel update. When it turned out to be John, I must have sounded like total stammering flibbertigibbet, one who had to get off the phone immediately because I’d answered while driving. Fortunately, John was kind and understanding, and we scheduled a phone call for the following day. As an avid list-maker, I had lots of questions about the deal, and John patiently answered all of them.

This was during the week prior to Labor Day and John needed an answer in time for the next editorial meeting, so I had a short time in which to update agents who had requested my manuscript with the news that I had an “offer in hand.” Sure, I could have taken the deal without an agent. I could have just had a literary attorney review the contract for me. But I’d started querying agents for a reason: I wanted agent representation to guide me in my writing future. So, after sending out updates, I received emails from three agents to schedule “The Call.” That was a stunning and hectic couple of days! Again, I had a long list of questions, and each agent patiently responded and gave me detailed information about their agencies and their practices. To say it was difficult to choose from them is an understatement.They each had their strengths and appeals, and they each talked not just about the deal in hand but about helping to foster my career. In addition to the nitty-gritty provided in these conversations, two additional things in man reading contractparticular helped me decide: (1) looking over their sample contracts, which two of them provided without hesitation (the third doesn’t use contracts—which isn’t necessarily a dealbreaker—it’s just how some agents work), and (2) talking with other authors they represent, who generously shared with me their time, experiences, and perspectives. I’m sure I would have been in good, competent hands with any of these agents, but based on all of the information, my scale ultimately tipped in favor of my agent, Jessica Alvarez of BookEnds, LLC. Everything about her, about BookEnds, and about the authors Jessica represents, conveyed a sense of generosity and support and togetherness that really spoke to me, reinforcing the all the data I’d gathered. Those aren’t necessarily qualities everyone dreams of in their literary agent, but they were the key to the “right fit” for me. And I’ve been thrilled to work with Jessica and BookEnds ever since!

Looking back, it’s hard to believe all of that happened within, essentially, a week. And it’s been a dream ever since.  Working on edits; reviewing page proofs; seeing NEVER TOO LATE listed on Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and other e-booksellers; getting my first royalties statement—it’s all been breathtaking.

And it starts all over again with my next book, ALWAYS A STRANGER, for which I will likely receive edits this month! Wheeeeee!

This is the part that makes writing—all the hard work and fear and doubt—worth every second.

 

Thanks, Amara, and congratulations!

You can learn more about Amara Royce and her books on her website.  For more on my classes, please visit my Next Level website; and don’t forget to subscribe to this blog for irregular updates, writing tips, and real life stories from the publishing world. If you enjoyed this interview, there are lots more here, including chats with OUTLANDER author Diana Gabaldon, Simon & Schuster president Marysue Rucci, and literary agent Gail Hochman.

What To Do Once You’ve “Finished” Your Novel

Jo BourneEvery once in a while, I come across a blog post so informative that I just need to share it. Jo Bourne, for those of you who don’t already know her, is a critically acclaimed writer of historical fiction, including THE BLACK HAWK and THE SPYMASTER’S LADY.  She’s also one of the smartest people about the craft of writing I’ve ever met. We are old friends from the Compuserve Book and Author forum, where we both serve as section leaders, and over the years I’ve found myself savoring (and quoting) much of her writing advice. This time, with her kind permission, I am reprinting an entire blog post. I hope you’ll enjoy it, and check out her blog for yourself. If you’re a writer, you’ll thank me.

Here, with no further ado, is Jo:

 

“Congratulations on finishing your manuscript.
Woot woot.
Go celebrate.

We’ll wait.

 

 

…  All through with dancing and whooping it up?
Now there are a few necessary steps to take to get from here to publication.

 I. Get Crits

What:  Turn some chapters of your manuscript over to harsh, knowledgeable critters.  Listen to what they say.  You need critters who haven’t been with you every step of the way as you wrote.  Critters who are not your family or friends.

This is not putting a saucer of milk out for the tabby.  This is wrapping yourself in raw meat and stepping into the lion’s cage.

How:  There’s a Writer’s Workshop in the Books and Writer’s Forum.   Here.  Absolute Write, here has a ‘Share Your Work’ section.  Writer’s Forum here has a Writers’ Workshop.
If you are writing genre, there are probably specialized sites for writers of your genre.

Why:  Intelligent criticism of your work will help you write better and will prepare you to edit your manuscript.

II.  Let the manuscript rest

What:  Put the work away for as long as you can.  Six weeks.  Three months.  Six months.
(You spend this time working on the next ms and critting other folks’ manuscripts, which is an excellent way to improve your own writing skills.)

How:  Print it out and put it in a locked drawer in the bottom of your desk.  Put all the work in a folder named “Open in January.

Why:  This lets you look at your own work with a critical editorial eye.  It gives you distance.

III.  Learn how publishing works

What:  Spend a solid 40 hours studying the publishing industry.

How:  Start out by Googling everything you can find on the subject.  Then drop into places full of knowledgeable folks and ask questions.

Why:  If you were going to (a) take a job in Thailand for a year or (b) go to State Aggie to study animal husbandry or (c) work for Avis Rent-a-car, you’d do that much research about (a) the country, (b) the university or (c) the business.
Why would you go into writing with less preparation?

III. Learn about agents

What:  Start making a spread sheet of agents who work in your field.  See who they represent.  See who they sell to.  See what kind of deals they’re making.  Find out what folks say about them.
If they have an on-line presence, get a feel for who they are.

How:  Google.  Look at the acks in the front of books similar to your own writing.  Publisher’s Lunch and Publisher’s Marketplace.

Why:  That’s the list you will query, when you query, if you decide you want an agent.  And after all, you have some time while your manuscript is resting.

IV.  Revise

What:  When the manuscript has aged like, y’know, fine wine … take it out of hiding and read it over.
Now you will revise.  Now you see what’s wrong.

How: Read and correct as if someone else had written it.

Why:  Because, unless you have indeed done this, the manuscript is not as good as you can make it.

V.  Find Beta Readers

What:  Beta readers take an entire manuscript that is ready for submission and crit it.  Beta readers, if possible, have never seen the manuscript before.

How:  Find them by doing beta reads for others.  Find them by making friends in writers forums.  Pay them in chocolate.

Why:  Because they will tell you if the whole thing works.  They’ll point out illogical story lines.  They’ll improve the manuscript.

 
VI.  Re-revise in light of the Beta read

’nuff said.

VII.  Get an agent … or not

Three months have passed since you declared your manuscript finished.

You will have read 10,000 words arguing Indie/Big Press/Small Press.
You’ll have the best manuscript you can write in one hand and a significant bit of WIP in the other.

Now you make this decision.

 

Many thanks to Jo for permission to reprint this post. If you appreciate her thoughts, you know the best way to thank a writer, don’t you?

Speaking of which, I’ve just learned that my new book, A DANGEROUS FICTION, has just made one of Amazon’s top 100 bestseller lists recently, the one for thrillers with female sleuths. So woot woot!, as Jo says!  Recently there was a wonderful review by Joan Baum in Dan’s Papers and a couple of fun interviews, one by My Bookish Ways and one by writer Sara Bowers, and there’s more to come.

The past few weeks since launch have been quite a whirl.  In fact, A DANGEROUS FICTION, worn out from the rigors of self-promotion, was recently spotted taking a bit of well-earned R&R.

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Query Fails: Why They Happen

 

In my eternal quest for procrastination, I turned this morning to Slushpile Hell, a site to which writers have turned from time immemorial (since 2010) for a hearty laugh and a pleasant glow of superiority. The query letters on this site are so bizarre, clueless and illiterate that I would be tempted to believe the agent who curates them made them up, had I not been an agent myself for many years, during which time I received similar letters.

We passed those around the agency, I will admit. Agents do. It’s gallows humor of the sort ER doctors used to blow off steam. Outsiders, listening in, might have thought us heartless, but outsiders never had to wade through a literary agent’s slush pile, which for people who love literature and language is as much fun as vivisection is for animal lovers.

So I went to the site and read some of the letters and laughed at the snarky replies; but at the same time found myself feeling sorry for the clueless writers of those queries, which seemed to fall into two general categories: the misled and the misbegotten.

detergentThe misled are the writers who believe they have to sell themselves to the agent the same way you’d sell detergent. They praise their own work, which to any professional is a cringe-making gaffe that screams Amateur! “This book is different from all other books; this book will make us both rich; this book will make you laugh and cry; this book is far better than the drivel put out by [insert name of best-selling author].” Real writers don’t talk about their work that way. They let it speak for itself. It’s not impossible that the author of such a letter could have written a good book, but it’s unlikely that any agent will asked to read it.

The misbegotten are those of whom it is said “everyone has a book in him.” Perhaps everyone does, but that doesn’t mean they should let it out. Some query writers seem completely unaware of their ineptitude with the language. Anyone who would send an ungrammatical, misspelled, totally incoherent query letter cannot possibly have written a book worth reading; and there are many examples of these on the website. Other query writers are  delusional people drawn to writing in order to propagate their delusions. Every agent who’s been in the business for any length of time has received book proposals from messianic messengers of doom and revelation. These are often but not always religious, but they all have discovered the secret to life. Those letters range from sad to bizarre to scary, depending on the writer’s philosophy.

Speaking of misbegotten messengers, I’d like to give a shout out to my son’s alma mater, Vassar College, which was recently targeted by the Westboro Baptist Church, those lovely folk who like to picket the funerals of American servicemen. As a direct response to this group’s action, Vassar students and alumni raised  over $100,000 in a matter of weeks for the Trevor Project, an organization that helps LGBT youth. Way to make lemonade out of lemons, Vassar!

Writers who are currently seeking agents should not be deterred by sites like Slushpile Hell, but rather learn from them. These days there are so many excellent resources for writers available online that there’s no excuse for cluelessness. Before you send that query, run it by the savvy folks on Absolute Write, Agent Query, or CompuServe’s Books and Writers forum. You can also find a lot of advice on writing query letters on this blog—just click on “query letters” in the categories box to the right— with additional resources listed here.

Writing a decent query letter isn’t rocket science. It’s a business letter, not a confessional. From the perspective of top agent Gail Hochman : “A letter that is interesting to read means the writer might have something interesting in his manuscript.” If you present yourself as a reasonable, interesting person with a compelling story to tell and enough pride in your writing to compose a letter with flawless grammar and punctuation,  agents will want to read your work.

Or won’t they? Let’s hear about your  experiences with query letters and agents.

10 Things Writers Should Expect From Literary Agents

 

Gone—long gone—are the days when writers finished their manuscripts, wrapped them in brown paper and mailed them to Mr. Doubleday or Mr. Lippincott. These days, major publishers rely on literary agents to prescreen manuscripts, and most won’t accept direct submissions from writers. That means that the first step for writers who seek mainstream publication is to seek an agent. As seasoned query hounds know, this is not as easy as opening the Yellow Pages; in fact, it’s often the hardest part of the publishing process. There are, at any given time, a few hundred agencies with the ability to get books looked at by these publishers. Last year, some 250,000 books were published in the U.S., as well as another 650,000 or so that were self-published, which gives you an idea of the number of aspiring writers out there.

You do the math. With so much demand, it’s no wonder aspiring writers obsess over the best way to catch a literary agent. The internet is full of advice for doing this, including my own articles and blog posts. But there’s precious little said on what to expect once you’ve snared the elusive beast—specifically, what to expect from it.  In the heat of the search, it’s easy to overlook the fact that the agent-writer relationship is a two-sided, mutually dependent relationship. As someone’s who has worked on both sides of the street, I thought it might be useful to assemble a little list of what writers can expect from their agents.

  1. Enthusiasm for your book. If they don’t love it, they won’t have the fortitude to stick with it even if it doesn’t sell immediately. This enthusiasm should be accompanied by a realistic appraisal of the book’s prospects. In general, part of the agent’s job is educating the writer about how the industry works.
  2. A plan. He or she should have some idea of editors who might like your work.
  3. Commitment. If a book doesn’t sell in the first round of submission, the agent should have a back-up plan. If she’s received some “close but no cigar” responses with useful feedback from the editors who declined the book, or if she has some editorial suggestions of her own, the agent and writer might want to consider a revision before making additional submissions. Otherwise, the agent should send the book out to additional publishers. How long to keep going can be a point of friction between writer and agent, as top agent Gail Hochman explains in this frank interview. Writers often want to keep going long past the point of no return, and naturally so; they have a lot more skin in their books. But at the least, those first few rounds of submission should cover a substantial number of publishers. Agents who conclude on the basis of a mere handful of rejections that the book is not worth submitting further do their clients a great disservice.
  4. Execution. I knew an agent once who took on a writer with no clear idea of how to sell her. The ms. sat gathering dust on his shelf for a full year while he deliberated. This is inexcusable. Once an agent accepts your book, and you have a “final” version ready for submission, he needs to send it out.
  5. Communication. Writers have the right to know to whom their work has been submitted; if the agent doesn’t offer this information, it’s perfectly reasonable to ask. Writers also have the right to be kept informed of the results of those submissions, including, if they choose to see them, copies of the rejection notes.
  6. Contract negotiation and vetting. This is one of the most important functions of agents. Publishing contracts are long and complicated, and good agents are experts in them. Their job is to negotiate on your behalf, obtain the best terms possible, and then vet the contracts thoroughly.
  7. Sub Rights. The agent is responsible for submitting the book to whatever subsidiary markets (film, translation, etc.) they’ve reserved on behalf of the writer, and the writer has the right to know what the agent is doing in that regard and to offer input, while bearing in mind the agent’s expertise.
  8. Payments from publishers should be passed through promptly, after agents deduct their commission.
  9. Advocate. The agent should continue to act as the writer’s advocate throughout the publishing process, staying involved in all phases of the process. A great deal of friction between writer and editor can be avoided by funneling questions and concerns through the agent, who can act as a sounding board and let the writer know what’s realistic and what’s not. If there is a real problem, the agent has more clout and in-house contacts than the writer.
  10. Career guidance. Some writers want it, others just want to be left alone to write what they want to write. Either way, the agent should be the first person to whom the writer turns for education and advice about the publishing business. To this end, there needs to be good communication between them. Writers need to respect the agents’ time—the good ones are always harried, and calling them just to chat about the state of publishing or personal matters is not considerate behavior.  But they also need to feel free to address professional concerns with their agents, and to be confident of getting a timely, thoughtful response.

Notice what I did not include on this list: editorial feedback. Some agents give extensive notes, in an effort to get the work into the best possible shape before submitting. Others accept only work that is already polished and salable, and leave the editing to editors. I’ve had agents from both camps. Neither approach is right or wrong; each agent decides according to his or her strengths and time limitations.

Let me know what you think. I’d love to hear from agents as well as writers. Do you agree, disagree? What have I omitted?

What To Look For When You’re Looking For an Editor

 

Suppose you’ve written a novel, submitted it to literary agents and publishers, and found no takers, Chances are you’ve had little or no substantive feedback of explanation of where your work fell short. Because they receive such daunting quantities of submissions, agents usually stop reading as soon as they determine that a book is not for them. Not only do they not have time to write critiques of books they’re rejecting, in most cases they haven’t even read the whole book. The result is an enormously frustrating Catch 22 for writers. It’s difficult to get good enough to publish without smart, detailed feedback; but you don’t get that feedback until your work is sold. Writers can end up with enough rejections to paper a room and no idea of why.

At that stage, many writers pack it in. Either they shelve the book or they self-publish it in its current form, just to get it out there. Other writers double down by looking for an editor or workshop to help them hone the book before starting a new round of submissions or self-publishing. My last post, Have Red Pencil, Will Travel?, considers whether and when it makes sense to seek out professional help in the form of an edit, an evaluation, or a writing workshop.

Full disclosure: I’m a writing teacher myself, and I also do fiction evaluations and edits. I’m not drumming up business, though; in fact, I’ve put my workshops and editing work on hiatus while I work on the sequel to A DANGEROUS FICTION.

When it comes to hiring an editor, it’s buyer, beware. Anyone can call himself an editor. There are no official credentials, so it’s not like calling yourself a lawyer if you haven’t passed the bar, or a doctor if you never went to med school. Before spending money on a hired gun, better make sure he can shoot. Make sure, too, that the work you submit to the editor has already been edited to the absolute best of your ability. That will ensure that you get feedback on things you didn’t see yourself, instead of on stuff you already meant to change.  This post will provide some criteria to use in choosing an editor or writing teacher. The guidelines are similar but not the same, so I’ll present them separately. First up: what to look for in an editor.

1. Substantial, verifiable experience. Ideally, the editor will have worked for a major publishing house, or written for one. Academic credentials help—a professor of English will catch your grammatical mistakes—but the most helpful editors also have a background in publishing. And don’t just take their word for it; google them.

2. Track Record. Your goal is to get published, so you want an editor who’s helped other writers get there. There are no guarantees of success, but why not choose an editor whose students have sold books to commercial publishers? Note the word “sold.” Students who self-publish don’t count as a teaching creds. Many editors have testimonials and lists of published work on their websites. If not, feel free to ask.

3. No Inflated Claims. Any editor who promises or even implies that with his help you will sell your work is either a huckster or shilling for a vanity press. No one can make that promise, and no reputable editor would. All he can reasonably claim is that the book will be better than it was, and you will learn something about writing in the process.

4. R-E-S-P-E-C-T. Look for an editor who enters into what you’re trying to accomplish, rather than imposing his own style and ideas onto the work. Editors have to be frank to be effective, but they shouldn’t run roughshod over their clients. You should come away from an edit feeling energized and enlightened, not steamrolled. Part of respect, though, is honesty. A serious critique from someone with professional standards can sting, especially at first; but if it’s too soft, you’re not getting value for money.

5. Expertise in your field. There’s no point hiring a brilliant science fiction editor if you write romance. Look for an editor who’s worked in your genre. If you’re not sure, ask.

6. Sample. Most important! Not every editor is right for every writer, and the only way to find out is to ask for a sample edit. Serious editors don’t take on every job that comes alone, so they’ll be happy to do this; they may even require it. The sample can be anything from a couple of pages to the 5000 words I read in my “Special Offer;” the cost should be nominal. Look for an editor who isn’t just making changes or correcting mechanical errors, but also teaching you something you didn’t know about writing. Send the opening pages; the feedback you get on those will be the most valuable. If you get a sample and you’re not sure the editor is right for you, keep looking.

One alternative to hiring an editor is taking a writing workshop, as rigorous as possible. Look for one that allows you to work on and share parts of your novel. In my next post, I’ll list some criteria for choosing a writing teacher. With the explosion of online classes as well as those offered in brick-and-mortar institutions, writers these days have many good options to choose from.

If you find these posts useful, you might want to sign up for the URL feed or subscribe via email. And now I’ll say goodbye for a little while. I’m going on vacation, and will be back posting on the weekend of November 17. But I’ll check in for comments, and would love to hear your thoughts about and experience in working with an editor.

 

Have red pencil; will travel?

 

Should writers hire freelance editors? It’s a vexed question, much debated on the writers’ forums and blogs. My own opinion has evolved over time with the changes in the publishing industry, and it may surprise those of you who know that I myself have worked as a fiction editor. My default position is that they should not… or at least, not right away.

Whenever this question is discussed on other blogs and forums, invariably someone will say, “It’s the writer’s responsibility to edit his own work. It’s part of the job,” to which I say, Amen. First drafts are not finished novels, and shouldn’t be regarded or presented as such. They are the imagination’s playground: rough, and meant to be.  Revising is where the real art comes in. That’s where writers deepen their characters, vet the structure of the book, deal with unruly subplots, refine the language and imagery, and find ways to bring out the theme, which often presents itself to the writer only after the first draft is written.  “Every writer,” Jane Smiley wrote, “has to learn to…come at each piece of work again and again with as close as he can get to a new mind and a new sense of joy.” Rome wasn’t built in a day, and novels are not written in one pass. Most of the published writers I’ve known spend at least as much time revising as they to writing the original draft.  “I am an obsessive rewriter,” Gore Vidal once said, “doing one draft and then another and another, usually five. In a way, I have nothing to say but a great deal to add.”

Nevertheless, writers need editors. As writers we can only see what we see; we don’t see what we can’t see. It sounds simplistic but it’s true. Every artist gains through smart, objective feedback. Beta readers can be helpful if the writer chooses well and gets lucky, but it’s not at all like feedback from a professional editor with professional standards. A good editor knows not only when something isn’t working, but also why and how to fix it. The result is a better book, and that, I believe, is what every true writer wants most for his work. The process is also educational, since learning from smart editing is one of the primary ways in which writers grow. What they absorb through the editing of one book, they will apply to the writing of the next one.

Why, then, if editors are so essential, do I advise writers against hiring their own? For purely financial reasons. If the book sells, it will be edited at the publisher’s expense. Edits are not forced down the throat of writers, by the way, contrary to propaganda put out by some self-publishing advocates. Edits usually come in the form of questions or suggestions. The final word is always with the writer, although in extremely rare cases, when communication between writer and editor totally breaks down, a publishing house does have the right to withdraw from a contract if the book is not, in their view, publishable. (The reason such occurrences are rare is because publishers don’t usually buy books that need tremendous amounts of work unless they’re by celebrities, and in those cases there is usually a professional ghostwriter attached.) Paying out of pocket for the same level of editing would be exorbitantly expensive. First-rate, experienced editors charge a lot; $10 and upwards per page is common, and that is just for the first edit. To duplicate the services provided by trade publishers, you’d also have to pay for an edit of the revision, as well as copy-editing and proofreading: maybe $18, $20 a page. (Let me anticipate objections by conceding that yes, you can hire editors for less; but as is usually the case, you get what you pay for.)  That’s a lot of money to invest in a book that may never sell. And the sad truth is that the vast majority of first novels, edited or not, do not sell.

That’s why I recommend that when writers have finished a novel (by which I mean they’ve edited it thoroughly, shared it with a trusted beta reader or two, and revised again to implement whatever useful feedback they receive), they send it out to test it in the market. Of course, to give the book a fair chance, writers have to bone up on submission protocol,  write a great query letter, and assemble a list of suitable literary agents. Having done all that, it’s time to let the book go forth and seek its fortune in the wide world. If it attracts an agent who then sells it to a publisher, the publisher will provide editing services at no cost to the writer. That’s a big part of what they do, along with production and marketing.

But such a scenario is the best of all possible worlds. Suppose it doesn’t go that way? What if you’ve written a novel, sent it out, and gotten nothing but form rejections from agents:  no encouragement, no criticism, no feedback at all. It happens. Agents stop reading the moment they determine that a book is not for them; they don’t finish the ms. and write thoughtful critiques. Writers can accumulate a stack of rejections without an inkling as to what went wrong and how to fix it. Or they might come close—requests for full mss. from agents, even an offer of representation followed by no sale. What do they do then?

Once, for lack of any other alternative, these unwanted works would have been shelved, mourned over, and eventually forgotten. These days, writers have choices. They fall into four categories:

Option 1. Writer decides that agents are bums and stink at their jobs; tells himself that no one gets published without knowing someone in publishing; concludes that the game is rigged; and, rather than deprive the world of his work and himself of the glory, decided to self-publish. None of these suppositions, by the way, is true. Celebrity authors aside, publishing is one of the few remaining meritocracies. In the past year alone I’ve had the pleasure of seeing four of my Next Level students sell their first novels, and none of them had any connections or “platform.” (If you want to learn how they did it, two of them, Tiffany Allee and Mika Ashley Hollinger, answer that question in interviews on this blog.)  Writers who choose to self-publish are well-advised to hire an editor, and not just any editor but the best one they can find and afford. Sending a book out into this market without editing is like dropping a toddler off to play in Times Square; it will be squashed flat in no time at all. It makes economic sense, too, to invest in editing. In a recent study of self-published books by the Taleist magazine, researchers found that edited fiction outsells unedited fiction by a wide margin.

The advent of inexpensive self-publishing and the rise of the ebook has given writers options they never had before. I do think self-publishing is a very difficult road, especially the marketing aspect. In the U.S., over 300,000 books were self-published in the last year, and they are all competing furiously for attention, reviews, sales. But that’s a whole other topic, and if you want to hear my take on it, you’ll find it in a post called “What If J.K. Rowing Had Self-Published?” My point here is that having choices is a beautiful thing. Over the years I have read some brilliant early novels by writers who didn’t have instant commercial success. Maybe they get to publish a second novel, maybe not; but an awful lot of wonderful writers disappear from the market because their sales figures killed them in the eyes of the increasingly monolithic (and well-informed) publishing industry. Who knows what they might have written had they been able to continue? Today such writers have other ways to find readers, and readers to find them.

Option 2. Writer concludes that the book is not good enough yet and goes back at it again. In this case, it makes sense for the writer to consider hiring an editor to provide skilled, objective feedback. It’s also possible to find professionals who will do detailed evaluations of the book or part of it, pointing out the strengths and weaknesses of the work in a very specific way without actually doing the edit for the writer. Evaluations are usually much less expensive and possibly more educational, because the writer has to do more of the actual work of revision, rather than having it done for him. It must be said that making this investment of time and money does not assure publication. It will result in a better book, but whether it’s publishable or not depends not just on the quality of editing but the quality of the original material. What the edit is bound to do, I think, is teach the writer a lot about the craft. I see it as an intense, detailed tutorial that focuses on the writer’s own work; and given the uncertainty of publication, this may be its greatest value.

Option 3. Writer gives up on that book and goes on to the next, building on what he learned from writing the first. Most published writers have an early unpublished work or two in their drawers. (For current and future generations of writers, that may become “an early self-published work or two.”)  One novelist I knew—Ted Whittemore, author of the brilliant Jerusalem Quartet—wrote seven books before selling his “first” novel.

Option 4. Writer gives up on writing and takes up another pursuit. It happens, and not necessarily for lack of talent. To succeed in this tough business, people need also need fanatical perseverance. (As Richard Bach said, “A professional writer is an amateur who didn’t quit.”) They need another source of income, too, since only a small fraction of writers support themselves through books alone.  And let’s not forget the luck factor, lest it forget us.

Writers who choose Options 1 or 2 might also consider as an alternative to editing putting their books, and themselves, through a rigorous writing workshop that will allow them to work specifically on their novels. There are quite a few available, both in brick-and-mortar institutions and online. In my opinion, if a first round of submissions has not led to a sale, it’s worth delaying a second round, or self-publishing, in order to do your very best to improve the book in hand.

Whether you choose a course, an editor, or an evaluator, it’s essential to do your homework and find someone who’s both well-qualified and suited to your particular project. In my next post, I’ll set out a list of criteria for writers to consider before making that choice.

Top Ten Ways To Get Rejected By Your Dream Agent

 

Last week, West Coast literary agent Pam van Hylckama Vlieg was in her car on the way to pick up her daughter at school when she was suddenly attacked by a man wielding a baseball bat. He started banging her head against the steering wheel and ran off only when her dog bit him in the arm. This was no carjacking or random attack. Just hours after the attack, police arrested a man who had written a threatening letter after his work was rejected by the agent.

Before we go any further, let’s take a moment to say hats off to the dog, a Jack Russell terrier, I believe. Dogs should be standard issue for literary agents.

I was doubly shocked by this attack. First because I felt for and identified with the agent. I don’t know Pam, but I was a literary agent myself for many years and, like most agents, encountered the occasional unhinged writer. I was also shocked, with true writerly egotism, because the story so closely mirrored the plot of my upcoming novel, A Dangerous Fiction. In my version, a New York agent is stalked by a writer furious at being rejected, whose behavior escalates from harassment to sabotage to violence. The police were not as quick in my story to discover the culprit as they were in real life; but as often happens with fiction, my villain was smarter. The real–life attacker left his name and address in the agent’s files.

The day after the real attack, my e-mail box was full of messages from people who had read proofs of my book – – several fellow writers and people from Viking, my publisher – – exclaiming about the coincidence. The coincidence was indeed surprising, the attack wasn’t. Writers take rejection very personally, they get a lot of it, and it has a cumulative effect. Since agents are regarded as gatekeepers to the promised land of publication, they often bear the brunt of writers’ frustration. Their role is not unlike that of unfortunate Walmart employees tasked with keeping order outside the store on the morning of Black Friday. Not for nothing do agents barricade themselves behind assistants, answering machines, and form letters. Rejection is never fun for anyone, and a little distance can make it easier to bear. But for someone who’s unstable, that distance in itself can be a provocation.

I hope I don’t need to tell anyone reading this post that pounding the head of a potential agent into a steering wheel is not the best way to gain representation. It is in fact so counterproductive that one has to wonder whether the attacker actually hoped to succeed. Most writers, when they set out to gain representation, really do want someone to sell their book. There’s plenty of good advice available for these writers, including these articles and resources. But there must also be some writers who fear success and are determined to sabotage it. Perhaps being rejected plays into their self-image as misunderstood geniuses. So for those who are determined to fail, here is a list of the top 10 ways to get rejected by your dream agent:

1. Be crazy. If you harbor conspiracy theories, make sure to share them in your query letter. If you have the solution to the world’s problems, let the agent know. If your novel was dictated by any alien, occult or deceased beings, this is vital information for your literary representative.

2.  Be creative. There are plenty of ways of skinning a cat. If an agent won’t take your phone calls, find out where she lives and drop by. Send her gifts. Let her know she’s special.

3. Get cozy. Call the agent by her first name. Let her know you’ve done your research, not only into what genres and authors she represents, but also where her kids go to school, her mother’s nursing home, and her Social Security number. This will impress her with your research skills. Don’t hesitate to share your own personal story with her, as well. If you’ve been unjustly incarcerated or hospitalized, discuss it in the query letter and let her know you’re fine now.

4. Pattern Your Book on Current Bestseller. Why argue with success? Originality is for losers; you’ve worked out a formula that guarantees you a spot on the bestseller list.

5. Send your first draft, hot from the word processor. Don’t sweat the small stuff, or the big stuff, either. Editors exist to clean up in the wake of geniuses. Let them earn their keep.

6. Rules are for suckers. Real writers are nonconformists. Check out the agent’s rules for submission, by all means, but do your own thing. If he asks for a query of one page, write six if you need them. If he asks for a chapter, send the whole manuscript. You know he won’t be able to stop reading once he’s begun. You’re just saving a step.

7. Explain how much money your book will make them. Agents are idiots and don’t know what sells. Show them they’re dealing with a savvy customer.

8. Carpet bomb the industry with generic query letters. Just because an agent asks for scholarly nonfiction is no reason not to give him a chance at your paranormal thriller. Plus, agents are idiots. They’ll never know.

9. Promote yourself. Query letters are sales pitches, after all. Tell them you’re the hottest thing since sliced bread and John Grisham. Compare your work to the top-selling books out there and explain why yours will leave them in the dust.

10. Insult the agent. They’re sick of toadies. Some clever sarcasm and home truths will win you their respect.

 

The good news for those seeking rejection is that the odds are in your favor. Incorporate a few of these methods into your pitch and success is guaranteed.

A DANGEROUS FICTION is out, published by Viking/Penguin! In addiiton, Barbara’s last three novels have just been reissued in e-book and paperback form: SUSPICION, ROWING IN EDEN, and HINDSIGHT.

Publishing Mosquitoes

It’s a bad year for mosquitoes – or rather, a great year for mosquitoes, a bad one for their prey. On Long Island, where I live, I can’t step out to the garden without being attacked. There’s a wooded park nearby where I like to take the dogs for long, off–leash walks. Last couple of times I tried, I longed for one of those veiled hats that women explorers used to wear. I spent the entire walk waving my hands in front of my face, batting the pests away.

I thought of those mosquitoes when a former student (thanks, Deniz!)  sent me a link to a service that offers, for an hourly fee of over $100, to match writers with literary agents. What’s wrong with that? you may ask. If you do, I’m glad you’re reading this post, because this is also a bad year for purveyors of unnecessary services to writers. It’s money they’re after, not blood; but how much of either can writers spare?

Writers who’ve invested time, effort and emotion in writing a book desire to see that book published with a passion like that of people who long for a child. Desire of that magnitude makes people vulnerable to hucksters. Of course, hucksterism on the fringes of publishing is not a new phenomenon. Long before the advent of inexpensive self-publishing, vanity publishers existed to fulfill the dreams of aspiring writers, at a hefty price. Distribution was never part of the deal, so most often those writers ended up with boxes of unsellable books in the garage. Today, writers can distribute their self-published books through the same online channels as trade publishers, and they have far more tools to communicate with potential readers. The market is booming, and so is this year’s crop of mosquitoes.

I was a literary agent for many years and have been a writing teacher for many more. I feel protective toward writers and I don’t like seeing them ripped off. Today I’m going to look at just a couple of the services currently offered to writers. Take, for example, the submissions service I mentioned earlier, which promises to expedite the (admittedly tortuous) process of getting a literary agent.

In fact there are numerous companies that offer the same service, and they exist for a reason: it’s not easy to get an agent, or to sell your book without one. Unless they have an introduction from client or publishing professional, writers need to work hard just to persuade agents to read their manuscripts. Most submissions are rejected at the query stage…but not all. If the work is good enough, and the writer goes about searching in a smart way, finding an agent is definitely doable. Many of my students and forum friends have found agents in recent years, and several had multiple offers of representation. This, by the way,  is why when agents decide they want a book, they tend to act very quickly: they assume that if they are interested, others will be, too.

Agents are still reading, searching and hoping for the next original voice. (See this interview with literary agent Gail Hochman.) Writers need to learn to present their work professionally: polish the manuscript till it shines, research agents, writes a good query letter. Excellent books and websites abound with guidance on how to do that. (Here is a list of some of my favorites.) Any service that guarantees to find writers an agent probably has some snake oil and a bridge or two for sale. Even the ones that don’t guarantee it imply that their service makes it more likely. Not so.  If the work isn’t first-rate, no intermediary will be able to persuade a legitimate agent to invest time in it. If the work is good enough, agents don’t need an intermediary to point that out.

All these submission services do, in my opinion, is impose an extra layer between writers and publishers. Their expensive guidance is based on free data bases available to any writer with an Internet connection; Agentquery’s, for example.  For more on this topic, see Victoria Strauss’s article on Writers Beware.

There are many species of publishing mosquitoes. Some varieties (Anopheles scribus) specialize in self-published writers. It hurts me to hear about writers paying hundreds of dollars for reviews from bloggers or companies like Kirkus Indie Book Reviews. The purveyors of this service are exploiting a weakness in the self-publishing industry: the difficulty in finding readers when your book is one drop in a sea of millions of self-published works. Eventually, I expect, legitimate reviewers of self-published work will emerge with sufficient clout to sell books. Paying for a review of your own book is no substitute.  Before writing this post, I read a whole batch of these reviews from the better-known sites, which claim to be impartial. I found several things in common. The reviews are primarily plot summaries, as if to prove the reviewer had actually read the book. Then the reviewer said some nice things and some mildly critical things about the writing. No matter how negative the overall review, there was always a line that the writer could extract as a blurb.

Writers, save your money. Paid reviews have no credibility, and I don’t believe they sell books. The only review worth having is an impartial one from someone not paid by, related to, or sleeping with the writer. Better to invest that money in learning the craft. Take a writing class or find an experienced editor with a track record to work on your book with you. (Scroll down on this page for a list of criteria to look for in writing teachers and editors.) The best way to sell a book is still to write a really good one.