the black vault

WHAT IT TAKES TO PUBLISH A BOOK

Query statistics for my first novel

Agent Query Statistics
Type of Query
#
R
NR
MS
Snail mail
200
102
98
0
Email
223
94
129
6
Total
423
196
227
6


Explanation of symbols:

Snail = sent by post
Email = sent by email (does not include followups to unanswered snail):
# = Number of query letters sent
R = Number of replies received
NR = Number of Non-replies
MS = Number of manuscript requests (full and partial)

Publisher Query Statistics
Type of Query
#
R
NR
MS
Snail mail
0
0
0
0
Email
1
1
0
1
Total
1
1
0
1

SOLD - 100 % success rate

CHRONOLOGY:

First query letters sent out to agents: February 28

Query to the publisher: April 9; Same day the Publisher requests the MS.

Early July -- Publisher makes an offer.

April next year -- The novel hits the bookstands.

A year passes -- the novel gets three translation deals

Some of the lessons learned: the importance of targeted querying. My low Nr of requested manuscripts was the result of querying ALL agents rather than concentrating on those who specialise in my genre.

Getting your book published
or how to grow thick skin, quickly

The following experiences and the resulting comments and questions from fellow writers led to the creation of this ebook click

I wrote a book and decided to publish it. I didn't know how to go about it, so I purchased a stack of those books on "Getting Published". Gaw, they sounded so inspiring! Yet, two months later I was ready to trash them -- nothing in them related to what I was up against.

I found myself in a vicious circle: I was told not to pitch editors directly ("agented submissions only"), yet unable to find a literary agent (most query letters sent to literary agencies were not simply rejected -- they were unanswered). My frustration grew, and was compounded by the "advice" pushed by publications on "getting published", which are penned by literary agents, or (sometimes) editors, and inevitably perpetuate the myth that the only way to publish a book is: to write the darn best book, polish it (so far so good), and "find an agent who will find a publisher." While the "advice" sounded great in theory, the reality was that most writers cannot showcase their work because of the Catch-22.

I realized that if I wanted to become a published author I had to adopt the George Costanza approach, to "do the exact opposite" to the customary route. I did just that. I ditched the books and their main premise of having to find an agent. I contacted a New York editor instead, and I became a published author.

Why are these "advice" books so widely available and why are they so popular? These books are available because they serve the interests of those who pen them. They are popular because no alternatives exist, and because of the upbeat style in which they are written. They offer hope, everything is possible -- just write your novel, get an agent and the world will bend over backwards for you...

At the risk of sounding like the only downer in the industry, let me be painfully honest: trying to publish a book is the most depressing aspect of being a writer. The types of replies go one receives (or lack there of) only makes this process more stressful. A writer who finished her story and thinks that the worst is over, should take a good long holiday. She will need all the strength she can gather because she is up for a nasty ride: trying to find an agent.

How does it work?

Pitching a fiction book idea without a book being written will not work unless the writer is a celebrity, or someone with a good deal of clout (for example a war criminal or someone who slept with everyone in the White House, or preferably both, etc). Of course we all heard about miraculous exceptions (such as selling a novel based only on a synopsis, or a couple of sample chapters, etc), but for the sake of this article I am assuming that a writer reading this belongs to the struggling majority.

To be considered by an agent or a publisher a writer has to write and complete her novel first. She should aim for 85,000 - 110,000 words. Some publishers accept shorter books (50,000 - 70,000 words), for example Harlequin, but these are special interest publishers. One should have a clear idea of what kind of a book one intends to write and tailor it to appropriate publishers. Major publishing houses require "full-length novels". How long is full-length? As an example my first two novels are 95,500 words. This works out to just under 400 manuscript pages, using Word, 12 pt Times New Roman font, double spaced, 1 inch margins all around. But, length will depend on numerous factors, such as the number of dialogs, paragraphs, etc.

Next step:

  1. One should prepare a synopsis -- many agents like 1-2 paragraphs, some ask for a full page, few want to see 3-6 pages.

  2. Write a query letter.

As a general rule, a query letter should not be longer than one page (email is excellent as one can make it longer and no one will ever know) and should include a short description of the novel, writer's bio (if relevant), story length and genre (see more about the anatomy of a query letter go). The letter should be addressed to a specific person rather than a "submissions department".

Names can be found in my literary agents go and publishers go lists (prepared for my own use and updated once or twice a year.)

Writers should keep in mind that agenting is a very competitive business (not as competitive as being a writer, naturally!) where things change frequently -- people move places, some drop out of the game or their requirements change temporarily. For this reason writers should verify agency affiliations and never send their manuscripts before querying.

Many agents prefer snail-mail queries, but a growing number accept email, or email-only queries. Of those agents that insist on snail-mail queries, almost all ask that writers include a Self Addressed Stamped Envelope (SASE), even though many agents will reply by email (if included). Most agents will reply with a standard "No, thank you" or "Not right for me" note, often photocopied and crudely cut out, some may explain why they are not interested, though these are very rare. Many will never reply, even when a SASE is included. Of the 423 agents I queried (200 by snail), fewer than half replied, and of those that replied only 6 requested the manuscript for consideration, and all 6 requests came through email. Of those, one wanted $100 to further represent me, one read the MS over the weekend and decided that the novel had too much "blood and guts" for his Christian contacts in the publishing house, 2 agents whose representation I declined, and the remaining two were taking so long reading it that meanwhile I sold the novel myself.

When one agent declines to see the manuscript, a writer should try another person from the same house or wait several weeks and query again (I've had some success on the second, third, or even the ninth try). Incidentally, what elevated the number of replies I received (though oddly enough not the sort of replies I was hoping for) was the change of tactic (others too will scratch their heads after several hundred rejections and will try new tricks...) I kept a detailed list of agents queried and would run through it once a week. When someone did not reply, I would send a follow up query with this opening line: "Whom do I have to sleep with to get representation". Although most declined the service, many took the time to reply. One agent even asked for the manuscript, and eventually offered to represent it, though her contract was so long and difficult to understand that I declined it.

Some agents will ask for a partial (for example the first 50 or 100 pages, or the first 3-5 chapters), others will request full manuscript for consideration (most editors want to see a complete manuscript). Manuscripts should be printed single-sided, double-spaced, unbound, and with 1-inch margins all around. A synopsis should be ready in case it is asked for (it is easier to write a synopsis when one is not pressed to produce it). One should not be alarmed if an agent does not read the requested manuscript. Agents often employ outside readers who screen manuscripts on their behalf. Many agents don't even open their mail -- someone else, often shared by several agents, works as an office manager, sends out rejections, answers the phone, etc. One should treat a synopsis as a concise novel. What works best for me fits on one page -- major developments, characters, etc., but one should check agent-specific requirements (one-, or three-page synopsis).

Some agents will request exclusive rights to evaluate a manuscript and will not consider it if a writer submits to other agencies simultaneously. If this happens, one should make sure that the agent gets back in a timely manner. Time is money not only for them but for a writer as well. More importantly, it is the stress of awaiting another rejection, with just a glimmer of hope: perhaps this time, perhaps this agent will fall in love with it...

Some query letters are responded to within minutes, or a day, or two. Some agents take a week, few will take two weeks, fewer still will reply after a month or two. Most will never reply.

Submitted manuscripts may be rejected the same day they are received, but it may take a year before a writer hears back...

Some agents will request a manuscript but a writer will never hear from them again. Twelve months will pass and these agents will not reply to follow ups either. Did they hate the story that much? Or, did they sell the manuscript on Ebay? Do they screen manuscripts on behalf of the government? Do they find some perverse pleasure knowing that a writer spent 30 bucks printing and sending the manuscript for nothing? Who knows?

And, if this is not depressing enough... Some agents will telephone a writer at home after reading her manuscript; they will tell her how much they loved the story; they will tell her that the book was read by several folks at their end, and they all loved it; they will talk to the writer at length about the book, about her writing career and prospects and offer representation; they will tell her to expect an agency agreement (contract) shortly. Yeeppie! Three weeks later the writer will receive an email saying that agency changed their mind because the book is not The Da Vinci Code, the writer is not Michael Crighton or James Patterson or some other author who spent several decades building her career and therefore chances of receiving big money for the project are not worth the agency's efforts...

There is more. Some agents will add a writer's name, email address and the IP name to their black list / spam filters; in fact this is a growing trend. Writers in pursuit of publication will quickly realize the reality of being a writer in search of an agent: agents would be happier if only they did not have to deal with writers. Sure, someone may say that it isn't fair of me to generalize, but they can tell me this after they query 400 agents, most of whom do not reply.

The bottom line: writers should be prepared for rejections go they are a part of every writer's life. The sooner one realizes it and the sooner one grows thick skin, the easier it will be to cope with rejections.

There are two types of rejections:

  1. Rejections dispatched in response to query letters

  2. Rejections sent in response to submitted manuscripts

The first type of "rejection" should have a whole different designation, for instance -- a "decline" to read a masterpiece.

Most rejections, or declines, go beyond the standard four words: Not for us, thanks.

One should insist on a more detailed explanation why one's work is being rejected. Simple reply "Not right for me" is not helpful. A writer should treat rejections as a learning opportunity but never assume that a rejection means that she is a lousy writer or that her book is too crappy to be published. Judging a writer is like judging figure skaters, it is very subjective and depends on the judge's personal taste. One only has to think about one's own reading tastes and those of one's friends who insist that one must read this or that, only to find out what total shlock it is... Agents are bound by the requirements set forth by publishers; they only look for what they think they can sell (preferably at a huge profit) and therefore a writer's chances are limited. Querying editors directly broadens the opportunity becuse editors are the ultimate buyers, and they are able to make up / change / bend the rules on the spot.

For a good laugh get the "Rotten Rejections: The Letters That Publishers Wish They'd Never Sent" by Andre Bernard and see what some of the most popular writers in the World received in their mailbox.

Finally, consider this, the premise of my book DITCH THE AGENT go : one does not need an agent to get published. Querying a publisher directly may result in getting The Call. Hell, some publishers encourage unagented submissions, even the big Houses (TOR, et al). I emailed one such publisher. He replied within an hour, requesting the manuscript. Several weeks later he called and made an offer. After four weeks of negotiations we agreed on the contract. Rejections from agents kept coming for several months thereafter...

One should not be intimidated by the prospect of not "having" an agent. Negotiating a book contract is not very difficult. There are very good books that help writers understand the process. Once a writer gets a contract she can (and should) hire a lawyer specializing in literary rights to help her understand it and point out advantages / disadvantages. These guys don't come cheap, but are cheaper than agents, and more importantly, their services offer the peace of mind.

The lawyer I hired also owns one of the largest/most respected literary agencies in the country (though they never returned my SASE). When asked: "Should I hire an agent?", the lawyer replied "Jack, you don't need an agent, you have a lawyer."

An editor (former top exec at Hearst) I met at the Book Expo, when asked if she would be more willing to look at my manuscript if submitted by an agent, had this to say: "In my extensive experience I really do not trust them, had a few bad experiences with them, they seem to promise you the world, charge you a small fortune, and never seem to deliver just what they outline to you."

I am not saying that writers should give up looking for agents, just consider that not having one is not the end of the world. Writers should swing both ways: query agents and editors at the same time (but not brag about it to agents -- they like to believe that they hold all the strings).

Please keep in mind that the above observations are based on my own experience. Others may find the process quite different, hopefully less painful.

I am raising a glass of wine, wishing every writer the best of luck because they need it and deserve it:

To You!

Find out more about getting published, and about the publishing industry, in:

how to get published

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Questions every writer asks are finally answered:

How to publish a book?
How to find a publisher?
How to publish a book without a literary agent?
How to find a literary agent?
How to write a query letter?
How to write a synopsis?
How to edit a manuscript?
How to approach a publishing house?
How to query an editor?

These and more questioned are answered in detail by a published author. And invaluable first-hand experience shared by a writer just like you!

 

how to get published

how to get published