JWAM Reader request no. 4: On getting published (Updated)

I’ve had a couple of questions that are about publishing, not writing. I have disqualifed such questions from this month’s advice though I might run a publishing questions month later in the year.1 But since I’ve already gotten two such questions I’m grandfathering them in.

But I will answer NO OTHER publishing questions! From now on: questions about the process of writing only. Thanks!

beth says:

I’d be interested in looking at the differences in submissions from when you were first starting to now. Could you share your query letters? Could you show us a real-life synopsis that you used when publishing one of your books? As someone with a complete novel and complete lack of success in publishing, I’d love to know more about the nitty-gritty of publishing, what it looked like for you when you sought publication, etc.

And, of course, I’d love to see your zombie attack plan

Beth, I can’t answer your second question because this is not zombie questions month. Save it for later.

Mitch Wagner says:

The one that’s really got me stumped: How do you sell a first novel? Does you really need to get an agent first? If so, how can you tell who the good agents are and who are the crooks? There’s so much writing advice out there, it all sounds authoritative, and I don’t believe any of it. I have friends who are established writers, and I don’t even believe THEM, because all they can tell me is how they got started 10 or 15 or 39 years ago, not how to get started today.

These quessies are variants on how to get published. Please take into account that I am not an editor or an agent and have, in fact, never worked in the publishing industry except as a writer. Thus I am not the best qualified person to answer these questions.

Like, for example, I have never written a query letter. Although I spent twenty years trying to make my first professional sale, I was trying to break into the genre short story market. The markets I was submitting to didn’t require a query letter more complicated than “this is my story it is x words long”.

By the time I started to shop my first completed novel in 1999, I had made enough contacts in the publishing industry that three agents and two editors agreed to look at it without my querying them. They all passed on it. That novel remains unpublished. So does the novel I wrote after it.

My path to publication was accidental. Eloise Flood listened to me pitch the Magic or Madness trilogy and then bought it from the proposal2. It helped that she’d read an early novel of mine so she knew I could write a complete novel. It also helped that she had a brand new imprint at Penguin, called Razorbill, and was desperate. I learned later that she was very nervous about the risk. Lucky for her and for me it worked out.

That is not the usual path. When I tell unpublished writers my story they tend to respond by saying. “Oh, so it’s not what you know it’s who you know.”

Which bewilders me. They seem to not hear the part about spending twenty years trying to get into print. TWENTY YEARS, people!

Or the fact that my contacts turned me down flat. Having contacts might3 get your work looked at faster, but it still has to be good, and they still have to love it enough to publish it.

I often wonder what would have happened if I hadn’t relied on my scant contacts, if I’d done it properly and queried lots of agents and editors, instead of just five. Maybe I would have gotten published faster if I’d tried the old fashioned way?

The vast majority of pro writers I know found their agent and got published by doing a lot of research to figure out what agents suited them best and then sent out query letters. Scott did it that way and he did it in the days before the internet made the search for an agent easier with site likes Agent Query. Maybe you should ask him about query letters? Though that was back in 1996.

I do know a bunch of people who’ve debuted in the last few years or about to in the next few. Every single one of them sent out query letters to get an agent.

I’m not sure if there are any big NYC houses left that officially accept unsolicited manuscripts. I do know though that they all have slush piles made up of the unsolicited manuscripts. I hear that very very very very very occasionally some plucky editorial assistant finds gold in them there hills. But it’s probably the most difficult way to get published. A manuscript from a reputable agent gets read much much quicker. My agent, Jill Grinberg, started getting responses from editors about How To Ditch Your Fairy less than a week after it went out.

Reputable agents make things happen faster. When you get an offer they protect you from signing a pernicious contract. I did not have an agent when I signed with Penguin for the MorM trilogy. That deal was much less favourable to me than the one brokered by Jill for HTDYF and the Liar book.

How do you know who’s a reputable agent and who isn’t? The easiest way is to check who their clients are, and what their sales record is. Here’s a random agents’ site and look it’s not even based in NYC. (Yes, there are good agents who are not based in New York City.) But who are their clients? Why New York Times bestseller Ellen Hopkins is one of them. Well, I’ve heard of her. A quick check on Publishers Marketplace reveals that it’s quite a big agency with a lot of agents and many recent sales.

AgentQuery allow you to find agents for your specific genre. If an agency doesn’t have any writers you’ve heard of in your genre be concerned. I assume that you are very familiar with your genre. How else could you write a book in it? Writers Beware is a great place to check if you think an agent might be dodgy. Never query an agent who charges fees of any kind. Reputable agents don’t.

It’s also a good idea to check out agents’ blogs. Kristin Nelson‘s is a particularly good one and has links to many other agents’ blogs. She often shares her clients’ successful query letters and explains what it was about them that attracted her attention.

It sounds to as if Mitch and Beth above have already been down the querying salt mines without luck. Trust me, I know how much it sucks. I’m about to get all my stuff out of storage here in Sydney and one of the things I plan to do is go through my dispiriting collection of rejection letters. Even now that I’m published and have a wee bit of a career just the thought of them gets me down. I’m not yet ready to celebrate them the way that Shannon Hale does with her long roll of laminated letters. Being rejected sucks and publishing is a world of no.

My biggest piece of advice is not about agents or editors. It’s to keep writing. Beth and Mitch appear to have written only one novel. Beth says “a completed novel”. Mitch says “first novel”. A while back Tobias Buckell ran a survey and discovered that only 35% of published writers sold their first novel. I suspect if he’d gotten a bigger response that would be an even lower percentage.

My first two novels remain unsold. I have friends who sold their tenth first. Selling your first novel is the exception, not the rule.

There comes a time when you need to set your first novel, your baby, aside and move on. Doesn’t have to be forever. I still have hopes that one day my first will find its way into print. But you have to shift your focus to the next novel. If you get no where finding an agent for it, write another.

Keep writing novels. You’ll get better with each one. It’s okay to take a break from submitting and sending out queries. You can even stop altogether. Getting published is not the thing, writing is.

Yeah, I know. That was said to me during my twenty years of trying and it was annoying as hell. But, you know what? I kept writing. And if my career comes to a grinding halt, which statistically it’s likely to, that won’t stop me either. I will always keep writing. I can’t not. (Though I’m really good at taking long breaks from it.)

I guess the other advice—which I really wish I could take myself—is to not take rejection personally. The agent isn’t thinking about you at all, but about whether they like your book, and whether they think it’s saleable.

I realise that I did not touch on synopses. My quick and dirty advice is to think of the synopsis as an advertisement for the book, not the book itself. Though you should really ask Diana Peterfreund for synopsis advice. She is much better at them than I am and claims to love writing them. I do not.

Update: Bless Diana for she has now written a post on writing synopses. And it is very good.

NOTE: Please ask your writing questions over here. It’s easier for me to keep track of them and answer them in order if they’re all at the end of that one post. Thanks! I’m taking writing advice quessies for the whole of January, but I will not be answering any more on publishing.

  1. Though I am far less qualified to answer publishing questions. []
  2. Which consisted of the first three chapters, a detailed synopsis, and bits of back story []
  3. It doesn’t always—one of my contacts never got back to me. []


  1. Mitch Wagner on #

    This is splendid, Justine! Thanks so much!

    I haven’t been down the querying road. I haven’t finished my first novel yet, but I’m getting within sight of the end and thinking I should start planning ahead to the next step.

    As for the value of contacts: I’ve been friends for 20 years with one of the most influential editors in the genre. I’ve written four short stories and novelettes, and submitted every one of them to him. He’s rejected every one of them. We’re still friends. And he still hasn’t bought anything I’ve written.

    I know the odds on selling first novels but *my* novel is wonderful. And I’ve been a professional journalist for 25 years; I hope that writing experience will give me a head start on getting the novel published right out of the gate. And that it’ll make $10 million. And that Steve Jobs will like it so much that he’ll come to my house and personally deliver one of the new 17″ MacBook Pros, along with a vanilla soy latte.

  2. Kevin on #

    Brandon Sanderson did a podcast for Tor recently (http://us.macmillan.com/Podcasts/Default.aspx) in which he talks about he got published. Short version: it took a lot of writing (five “practice” novels) and a little bit of work finding the right editor before he got published.

  3. Justine on #

    Mitch: I, too, have been rejected by many of my friends. BASTARDS, er, I mean lovely people with slightly impaired taste.

    I’m very relieved to hear that your novel is a work of pure genius and thus guaranteed to get a huge advance and outsell the bible. It’s always good to be ahead of the game.

  4. Kimberley Griffiths Little on #

    AMEN, Justine. I’ve been more than twenty years trying to break in, too, so I hear ya loud and clear. At the end of the day, it *has* to be about the writing because publishing makes a person insane.

    I have a long time burning question for you: When I read MAGIC OR MADNESS when it first came out, I read your publishing story on your website and was curious about HOW you came to pitch the series to Eloise Flood at Razorbill. You mention it again today – and I’m still very curious! How did you know her to be able to pitch your project in person in such detail? Even those 10 minute *pitch* sessions at conferences wouldn’t have led to that – but maybe it did.

    Thank you!

    who just sold a 3 book deal to Scholastic in November!

  5. Harry Connolly on #

    If you don’t mind, I’d like to chime in as a writer who has recently landed a contract (first book comes out in September ::crosses fingers::) from Del Rey.

    I did it through the query route. I started with Agentquery.com, double checked at the Background and Bewares board at AbsoluteWrite, checked Writer Beward and Preditors and Editors.

    Then I googled each agent’s name along with the word “scam” to see if anyone accused them of something unseemly. I also googled each of them with the word “interview” to see if they rep what I want to write. For instance, one agent had “fantasy” listed among the genres she accepts, but said she’s not really interested in second-world fantasy, which I plan to write someday. I went to my agent list and changed the font color of her name to red so I’d know not to query her (I learned that taking names off the list was a bad idea, since I would start researching them all over again).

    In the end, I had three agents who offered to represent me. The one I signed with, Caitlin Blasdell, didn’t have a big web presence–no interviews, no blog, nothing–but I liked her line up of authors and I liked the answers she gave to my questions.

    Anyway, it took from June, when I started workshopping my query and researching agents, to December when I finally signed. Everything to do with writing takes forever!

  6. Diana Peterfreund on #

    What is “second-world” fantasy? Is that like “high fantasy” like it exists in a world that is not our own, or like there is another world parallel to our own (like Narnia, etc.)

  7. Justine on #

    Kimberly: I knew Eloise and rudely presumed upon our acquaintance to pitch at her. She was very kind to listen and to agree to look at the proposal. It was the proposal that swayed her though. I’m not a very good pitcher, but my proposal, if I do say so myself, was kickarse. I killed myself writing it.

    Congrats on your deal that’s awesome!

    Harry Connolly: That is the very model of how to do it. And thanks for mentioning how long it took. I think many people starting out are unaware that publishing is the opposite of greased lightning.

    Congrats, on your deal!

    Diana: As far as I know it’s a synonym for epic or high fantasy. Takes place in a world with a history unrelated to our own.

  8. Harry Connolly on #

    Thank you, Justine.

    Diana, it is indeed a fantasy set on a made-up world. I picked up the term from Sarah Monette’s LiveJournal, I think.

  9. Diana Peterfreund on #

    Thank you for clearing that up, Harry and Justine.

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