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Saturday, June 24, 2006

Because you asked . . . part two of mj's HOW to get published series

A few days ago, when I wrote about Sandra Nicholson and her one-woman Festival of Ineptitude, I was furious mad. I spent a good half hour ranting the situation in the general direction of Oscar Gingersnort, who was visiting from England. He spent a good bit of his visit watching the World Cup on television. That’s what he was doing when I was explaining why Sandra was so troubling. He tried to listen, but couldn’t help erupting with an occasional, “COME ON ENGLAND!”

Oscar doesn’t really get this so much, nor do most English people. Book banning is (bizarrely) an American pastime, much like baseball. It’s not going on so much elsewhere, except in places that we’re told we’re really not supposed to like. This is the bitter truth.

The last time I got that high strung, I was writing the first part of the “How Not to Get Published” series. And now, triggered by own outburst, I have come to fulfill my promise and bring you the second part.

The reason I am doing this is because “How do I become a published author?” is the question I get asked most frequently. All writers get it. I wanted to write one long, complete response.

The truth is, I really don’t want to answer. Not because I am trying to keep anything from you, but because the real issue is a bit complex, and it presumes something huge.

Namely, that you can write.

I have no doubt whatsoever that there are lots of really good writers out there. No doubt at all. As a kind of sweeping generalization, though, it still takes a lot of practice—and a few years of experience just so you have more things to write about.

But let’s leave all of that aside for the moment. This is the positive part, where I explain how the publishing business works in grander, more sweeping generalizations that make the generalizations in the paragraph above look very, very specific indeed.

So here it is, for better or for worse . . .


Okay. So you’ve written a book. That’s often question number one. “Do I need to write a whole book, or just part? Or can I just tell someone about my story and write it after I am accepted?”

Answer: Usually, yes to the first. If you are a first time author, you should have the whole book done. There are times when someone will purchase a book based on the first 60 pages or so, but as a general rule, don’t think about submitting until you’ve actually done the work.

So. Book. Now what?

Agent is now what.

The person you have to pitch to and impress is the agent. For the most part . . . (See, this is the problem . . . none of these things are absolute. But 98% of the time, they hold. You are probably not in the other 2%. Don’t feel bad about that. Those people are normally celebrities, pseudo-celebrities, and their ilk. Basically, freeloaders. Anyway . . .)

For the most part, authors don’t pitch to editors. Your task at this point is to find an agent to do that for you.


Getting an agent is an extremely competitive process. There are agents out there who reject 99% of everything that comes into their office.

Having said that, you first you have to find one. This, fortunately, isn’t too hard. There are ways of locating agents. Try a guide like this one.

The guides will give you the names of agents and agencies, and will tell you a bit about how many books they’ve sold and what they are interested in. Pay attention to this information. If you have written a murder mystery, don’t query an agent that says, “I only represent non-fiction books about Civil War-era ballerinas.” Sounds obvious, but in the heat of the moment, you may be tempted to try anything.

You can also research using books you like, and books that have the same “feel” as you book. Look in the acknowledgements to see if agents are thanked. Often, they are.

I can’t stress enough that you should watch out for scam agencies. They exist. There are lists out there (I talked about these in my previous blog) that tell you about these scams. Read them. Believe them.

Once you decide which agents you are going to submit to, read their submission guidelines. Follow the instructions exactly. If the submission guidelines tell you to send a manuscript ONLY if you are asked to—believe it. They say it for a reason.

Most will ask for something called a query letter. A query letter is a concise, professional pitch. You tell the agent about your book in a page or so. You should spend lots and lots of time perfecting your query letter. There are many guides on how to write these. It goes without saying that the query letter must be clean, clear, and have no errors.

The best online advice on getting an agent that I know of can be found on Miss Snark’s blog. Miss Snark is a New York City literary agent. She disguises her name, but she is quite real. Her advice is solid. She’s not always nice, but that’s okay.

This is a critical point: publishing is a business. It’s not always nice. Agents are usually polite people, but they aren’t there to make you feel better. They’re doing a job. They just happen to be dealing in your work, which means your feelings can get hurt. Rejection is part of the deal.

Think of football. (This is probably the only time I will ever say the phrase, “Think of football.” And by football, I mean American football. But you can think of Rest of the Entire Planet football if you like. COME ON ENGLAND!)

Think of football . . . you don’t go into a game expecting that everyone will step gently around you. Getting knocked down once or twice is part of the game. Don’t worry. Everyone’s been through it. Many writers collect their rejection letters. When I was in high school, I remember reading a story about F. Scott Fitzgerald wallpapering his room with them. That’s the right idea.

A lot of people will say no. All it takes is one yes.

(Incidentally, I meant all of that tackling stuff metaphorically. If anyone physically knocks you down, you probably aren’t dealing with a literary agency. You may be on a football field.)


Let’s say you have an agent. You’ve polished up your book, and now it is ready to go into the world. What happens then? I will illustrate, using my own agent. She has a real name, as all of us do, but in this blog she will be known as Daphne Unfeasible.

First, Daphne will look over her long list of editors at various companies and decide who might like the book the most. (It’s an agent’s job to know these editors and what they publish. They’re like stalker fans.) From this list, Daphne will choose the editors she wants to concentrate on.

Once she knows where she wants my book to go, Daphne will send it off, along with a nice letter on Unfeasible Enterprises letterhead. She will make followup calls and have lunches to talk about my book. (Mostly, agents are there to have lunch with. Agents excel at having lunch. Daphne can handle a menu like nobody’s business.)

Publishing is a slow, personal business. Editors have a lot of things on their desks. There’s really no telling how long it will take them to get around to having a look at my book. It could be days. It is more likely to be weeks. It will seem like time is at a standstill. It will seem like an eternity. It will seem like I have been forgotten. But I haven’t been. Daphne watches this process carefully.

After they’ve had time to look it over, the editors will tell Daphne if they want the book or not. If I am lucky, one of them will say yes. If the gods really like me, more than one will say yes.


If the answer is yes, the editor will also say how much they are willing to pay for the book. This is called the advance.

EVERYONE wants to know how big of an advance they will get if they sell a book. That is like trying to guess what the weather will be like on this day, twenty years from now. There is no telling. There’s no set amount that’s the “right” amount.

[Okay, there is a science behind the advance offer, however. It’s called a P&L. It stands for Profit and Loss. It’s a spreadsheet that tries to guess how much profit the book might make. Publishers frequently lose money on books, so P&Ls are important to keep the industry alive. If you really, really want to know more about P&Ls, read this. Otherwise, you can just move on. My basic message here is, don’t ask what an advance is supposed to be, or what the usual amount is. There is simply no answer that will work.]

Okay. So an editor has read the book, wants to buy it, and calls Daphne and says, “I like it. I will pay $10 for it.”

[$10 is purely an illustrative figure because it’s nice and simple. I can safely say that advances are usually much more than that.]

If that editor is the only one interested, Daphne may still try to get her to pay a bit more, if she feels she can. Maybe she can get $12 or $13.

If more than one editor bids, then things get interesting. Now Daphne has an auction on her hands. Unlike those auctions on TV, a literary auction is done in a normal voice, and usually happens over phone or e-mail. Editor one offers $10. Daphne tells this to editor two, who offers $15. Daphne goes back to editor one and says that the bid is now $15, so editor one may match that or go higher. And so on, until they stop. Along with money, editors can offer other things in the contracts that agents really like. For example, the publisher can sweeten their offer by promising to spend a certain amount publicizing the book.

I don’t get involved in any of this. I sit at home, eating canapés and making paper airplanes. The process may take an hour or a week or more, so I have to make sure to have enough bread and paper to wait it out. Daphne will call me and tell me the progress of things. When the bidding is over, Daphne gathers up the information and presents it to me. I decide which deal to accept. There is champagne, and maybe some dancing.


From there, Daphne and the lawyers from Unfeasible Enterprises will hammer out the details of the contract. This process takes a bit of time, so I engage in longer-term activities, like building a ship in a bottle or learning the trapeze. A few weeks later, my ship complete and my aerial back flip much improved, the contracts are sent to me for signature.

For Daphne’s time and trouble, Unfeasible Enterprises takes 15% of whatever money comes from the sale. I never have to worry about that. Part of the job of the agency to is to collect the money from the publisher. They take their 15%, and they send me the check for the rest.

Publishing contracts are usually a good number of pages in length, and they cover many issues, like who handles foreign sales and film rights, and the rate of royalties.


Royalties are another thing that people always want to know about. Royalties are a percentage of the profit from the sale of your book. So, for every copy sold, you get a little bit of money. Publishers do their account statements twice a year, so if you made any royalties, they come in once every six months.

The thing that surprises most people is that you just don’t automatically get royalties. Your book has to earn back its advance first.


You don’t get any royalties until your book makes a profit. Remember how they paid you $15? Well, they need to make their $15 back first. Then the book is making a profit, which you get a part of. This usually falls somewhere between 8-15%.

Here’s another shocker: many, many books never make royalties. It’s true. For every Da Vinci Code, there are a hundred books that don’t make back their advance. It doesn’t mean they are unworthy books. Many very, very good books simply don’t sell that many copies.


Here are the basic steps in the publishing process:

1. You write book
2. You search for agent
3. Your agent sells your book
4. Your agent works out the contract with your publisher
5. You sign, and the games begin

So, there you have it.

In the meantime, please don't forget . . .


Anonymous Anonymous said...

"Every banned book enlightens the world." -- Ralph Waldo Emerson

11:24 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Thanks for sharing this process with us. It was a really helpful post. :)

1:40 AM  
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