Note: This post is a bit outdated, but still.
Not that I’m particularly initiated myself, but it did occur to me today as I told people about my awesome weekend, that a lot of people who aren’t writers and aren’t in the publishing business don’t really know how it works, just as there are plenty of lin es of business that I’m clueless about. People who knew I went to the conference this weekend asked me things like, “Do you have an agent?” and “Did you sell your book?”
Well, it doesn’t really work that way. So I thought I’d try to give a little idea of how I *think* it all works, from what I’ve read, learned in classes and workshops or otherwise gleamed from other writers. I am certainly not any sort of expert.
Whether an author has completed a book, developed a proposal (in non-fiction) or a synopsis (fiction) for a book they intend to write, or just has a really good idea they’d like to be paid to write about, the road to traditional publication starts with the dreaded query letter.
The query is a letter you write to an agent or editor describing your book, your credentials, and sometimes a line or two lines about why you’re querying that agent (I almost always look extensively at the books an agent has represented, to see if and where mine fits in with their list). In one class I took on writing the query letter, we had to put all of that (book description, credentials, etc) and an excerpt into 250 words or less. It was incredibly difficult. Imagine taking a book that is 250 pages and trying to condense its essence into a paragraph – not easy! Not only that, but it has to be a really interesting, unique, well-written paragraph that conveys your superb command of language, your style, your humor, or whatever it is you want to convey, in this professional letter.
Then you send it off to some agents, who receive sometimes hundreds of these letters a week. And most often, you get rejected. According to Jeff Hermann’s Guide to Publishers, Editors and Literary Agents, or at least according to the profiles of agents I looked up in there, when asked what percent of queries they reject, it was almost always 95%. One agent I would love to work with put that figure at 99%. These unsolicited queries, letters that the agents didn’t request, are often referred to as the slush pile, and aren’t even always read by agents/editors, but sometimes by their assistants. At least that’s what I’ve heard. It does happen, but from everything I’ve read, it’s rare that an agent asks to see more after reading a query from someone they don’t know. And then, when you do send in the sample, there’s no guarantee they’ll love that.
So, the odds aren’t good (but are the goods still odd? Hmmm, I sort of hope so), which is one of the reasons that people go to these conferences where they can actually meet agents face to face. Even that is a tricky game, because at least at this conference I went to, we couldn’t give them any papers – queries, samples, etc – because if everyone did, their suitcases would weigh five thousand tons on the way home.
So, I feel thrilled that agents asked to see some of my work. I am not sure it ever would have happened without these face to face meetings. I also am fully aware that it’s harder to say no to someone in person, and there could be a degree of “just being polite” on the part of the people I met with. It’s hard to tell. There was one agent who I felt was definitely, genuinely, even enthusiastically interested, but even so, who’s to say how she’ll feel after seeing my writing? The other agents were a little more lukewarm, but again, who knows what they’ll think once I send them samples? It could go either way, but a face-to-face meeting and a request for any material is a huge step forward for me and I’m still floating on air from the whole experience.
And then, you know, even if an agent does want to represent me, there’s still the whole business of that agent in turn finding a publisher to buy it.
It’s not an easy business, and I’m well aware of that. But there is always the dream. I was thinking about this at my glorious and glamorous day job working in a kitchen at a YMCA camp, that this what I want to do, what I’e always wanted to do. Writing is what I’ve always done, and probably what I will always do, whether it gets me anywhere or not. Of course I hope it does, and I will always have that hope. Somehow, through all the years of writing, of writer’s block, or rejection letters, of doubt and anxiety and self-loathing (that I think every writer or creative person experiences while pursuing their passion), I grow through it, strengthen as a writer, and then get to some new level, with a new level of doubt and anxiety and self-loathing. Somehow, despite all that, my love for writing only deepens.
I wonder if that last statement applies to life in general, or anything worth loving, that the struggle makes it more meaningful and ends up enriching you in a deeper way. I’m sure it’s true in a lot of cases, but taken to the extreme sounds too much like martyrdom. That aside, I definitely want to ponder the whole thought some more.
“Josephine” – Tori Amos