Thursday, June 19, 2008

So You Wanna Get a Book Published?

Article on getting a book published.




The first rule of getting a book published is to avoid writing a book. Whoa, what the hell are we talking about? Yes, it's very counterintuitive, but the main goal of anyone who wants to publish a book is to land a literary agent, before spending years writing something nobody wants to read. (Of course, if you're reading this SYW because you've already churned out a work of genius, don't fear; go directly to 2. Prepare a proposal.) Let us explain: the literary world is a very closed community and the people who green light publication accept books only through very specific channels. Think about it: nobody could ever handle reading the mountains of spew that aspiring authors churn out all the time, so the system has established filters to weed out most of the garbage. You need to learn what the filters are and how to get through them. Namely, agents.

Agents -- what do they do, exactly?

An agent is a separate individual who performs much of this filtering process. You most certainly don't want to send a manuscript directly to a publishing house. They won't read it. They consider pieces only if they come recommended by an agent. Agents read manuscripts, or ideas for manuscripts (known as queries and proposals), and decide whether a project has promise. If it does, the agent signs a contract with the author, promising to use best efforts to get the thing sold to a publishing house, in exchange for around 15% of the deal. Editors at publishing houses would much rather deal only with agents who have a good track record for presenting quality ideas, so agents can be very choosy about who they sign. Landing an agent, therefore, is the whole idea of the game. Once you have one of those on your side, she will work incredibly hard to get your idea sold.

Agents, in turn, don't particularly like reading 300-page manuscripts either. In fact, they don't like reading much more than 1 page. So the first step to getting an agent to even pay attention to you is to send them a query letter. A query letter is essentially a short summary of your idea, who you are, and why you are qualified to write this project.

But you say, "Wait. I don't wanna give up fifteen percent of my book-deal-to-be. That stinks." Can you proceed without an agent? Don't even try. And are they worth the cash? You bet: 85% of zero is nada, and you got nada without an agent there, Chekhov. Don't worry, though, there are thousands of literary agents all across America and a few excellent guides that give you tons of information about what they like to represent and how to contact them. The very best is the Writer's Guide to Book Editors, Publishers, and Literary Agents, 1999-2000 : Who They Are! What They Want! And How to Win Them Over! by Jeff Herman. But first you need to know what agents want.


The first step to getting your name in print is to prepare a proposal. Remember, the proposal is a document that acts as a thorough outline of your idea for a book. Although you will ultimately contact agents by sending a query letter first, if any agent wants to follow up with you by reading your proposal, you will need to have written it already. So here's what to write:

General Overview: The first 2 pages or so should be a general summary of the entire book. If it is a non-fiction piece, just explain what you intend to write about and what topics you will cover. If you are writing fiction, provide a very general synopsis of your plot.

Market: Next, write a 3-page description of the market to whom you think your book will appeal. Describe the age, socio-economic, and educational characteristics of the audience you think your book will draw.

Competition: This section is where you provide a description of the other books out there that also cover this topic. Be honest here because an agent can easily find out if you're omitting some best-seller. Remember, a market filled with similar books can be a very good sign that there is money to be made here. Hell, who wouldn't have written a Titanic book in '98 if they could have? Thirteen-year-old girls couldn't buy enough of all that nonsense.

Authors: This portion of the proposal is a 1-page description of yourself and your co-authors, if any. Boast all you can because your agent is going to want to think that you are a great author for this book, to convince a publishing house to pay you for your idea.

Chapter Summary: The bulk of the proposal will be chapter by chapter outline of what you intend to cover in your book. If you are writing fiction, here is where you may have to include up to twenty pages of actual samples. If the piece is non-fiction, stick to the minimum, either outlining or briefly synopsizing the heart of each chapter.

Delivery: This is a 3-sentence snippet at the end of the proposal that describes how many words you think the finished book will be and how long it will take you to write it.

For a sample, check out this real proposal. (To look at this file, download Adobe Acrobat Reader, available here for free.) And these resources will help you flesh out your proposal in more detail: Be Your Own Literary Agent : The Ultimate Insider's Guide to Getting Published by Martin P. Levin, and 30 Steps to Becoming a Writer : And Getting Published : The Complete Starter Kit for Aspiring Writers by Scott Edelstein.


When you attempt to contact agents, be aware that they divide themselves into fiction and non-fiction camps. So grab that Guide to Literary Agents and start thumbing the pages. (Here's another great source: 1999 Guide to Literary Agents: 500 Agents Who Sell What You Write by Donya Dickerson.) These directories list agents by various categories, and spend a page giving you detailed information about the agent. In particular, you can see what the agent does or does not like to see in a query and a proposal and, more importantly, what books they have represented in the past.

The second thing you should do is compile a list of twenty agents whose general interests align with the kind of book you're planning on writing. (It also helps to actually be capable of writing the book.) If you've just come back from a fantastic trip to Borneo and think you can spout off about it as well as any hippie schmo, look for agents interested in travel non-fiction. Or, if you've got a burning desire to embellish tales about how your parents abused you, make a note of agents who specialize in fictional human dramas. You get the point. If you don't, you're not smart enough to be a writer.


Once you've got your list of 20 target agents, you can start to get the word out. The way to make contact with these people without an official introduction is to churn out a query letter. (Of course, if you have a contact of some sort in the publishing world, then by all means, use it.) A query is a 1-page attention grabber that gives busy agents enough information about you and your project to tickle their interest without boring them with details. These people are constantly shuffling hundreds of pages of manuscripts, letters, and faxes, and the last thing they have time for is some unsolicited bore. Keep it short and to the point, and use the following structure.

The Teaser: In the first paragraph, toss out a teaser. Come up with a first sentence that really grabs the agent's attention. If you're a former astronaut or a Harvard lawyer, throw it at them. But you don't need to be incredible to survive this beauty pageant - what you really need is a nice fit between who you are and what the book you've written is about. For example, "I have been a school janitor for 30 years and I propose to write a book about all the incredible things I have found in kids' lockers." Now, there's nothing unbelievable about that combination, but there must be a compelling fit between who you are and what you intend to write.

Expanding the Idea: Next, write 3 or 4 sentences about what you will write, and if you have a great example of an anecdote that exemplifies your idea, be sure to include it. Rather than lamenting the constraint of having only a paragraph to make your pitch, celebrate the fact that you can show off your best stuff.

All About You: The third paragraph should contain more information about yourself. Provide another 3 or 4 sentences describing relevant facts that demonstrate the connection between you and your idea. If that means flexing your academic credentials, be sure to do so, but only if those accolades are relevant to your idea. Perhaps your idea requires you to demonstrate that you are a dirtbag. Fine - the cardinal rule is to show that you have a good idea for a book, and that you are the perfect person to write it.

The Closer: In the final paragraph, mention that you will show your proposal to only one agent at a time - agents don't like having to worry that someone else is going to snatch their prize. Mention why you have decided to send it to them, perhaps alluding to having seen their credentials in the directory of agents. Finally, be sure to tell them how to get in touch with you with a phone number, address, and email information.

Remember, this query letter should be an appetite-whetting morsel. Do not exceed 1 page or you can kiss the agents' attention goodbye. Keep it short and make it a tease. Then sit back and wait. Check out this sample query letter.

One last important note: Don't forget to include a self-addressed stamped envelope, in case they want to contact you by mail.


Agents will respond to your query in one of two ways: by phone if they're interested and by mail if they're not. So, that means the good news comes early. Typically, you're not going to be deluged by agents' phone calls. These people hear about book ideas every day of their life and you can be sure that they're pretty skeptical by the time your query landed on their desk. Expect a limited number of responses - one is all you need. When you do hear from someone, kick your project into high gear. Having an agent interested in your project is huge.

First, be sure to return an agent's call and tell her how flattered and delighted you are that she has expressed an interest in your project and that you will be choosing which agent you will send your proposal to in a few days. Then, wait a few days to see whether you hear from any other interested parties. If you do hear from more than one, repeat the flattering phone call, but then begin the appraisal process. The best way to decide which agent to send a proposal to is research his previous work. You will want to go with the best agent for you, and reading about the titles she has sold previously will shed a lot of light on your decision-making process.

To decide which agent to send your proposal to, we suggest the following rough guide. Look up her entry in one of the Agent Guides and make a list of the books he has previously represented. To keep the calculation easy, simply tally up the number of books that are either written by an author you have heard of or published by a company whose name you recognize. That's a pretty crude calculus, but also an effective one for picking the most accomplished agent. And they know that.

After you've come to a decision, act quickly. Be sure to inform the agent of your choice that you are going to send her, and only her, the proposal.


Now you wait some more. You have to give your agent time to read your proposal and float the idea around the office. If she loves it, she'll call in a couple of weeks. If she doesn't, she won't - it's like a bad relationship at this point. But, you need to get back on the market, so give her a friendly heads up if you haven't heard anything after six weeks: call the agent and say that you'll be passing on your proposal to another interested party if you still don't hear back within a week. If nothing, then go back to other agents who responded to your query and send it to one of them. Or if you didn't have any others biting at the query, start the whole process over again, either with a new book idea or simply with a fresh list of agents. There's a ton of both out there.

If you do hear good news, get psyched. You have an agent who wants to sign you. The best part is that you don't have to do any more work at this stage. The agent will send you a contract stating that she will attempt to sell your book using her best efforts and if she is, he will receive 15% of the deal. These contracts are only 1-2 pages long and don't usually need to be reviewed by an attorney. Just watch for two things: that the agent isn't looking to be your exclusive representative for more than a year (which is about the standard), and that she isn't going to charge you for the cost of office overhead if the book isn't sold.

Once you sign the contract they send you, make any changes to your proposal they suggest. They want to hone your piece into a selling machine. Once it's ready, they'll start making your pitch to publishing companies.

Getting the publishers to fork over cash for mere ideas is not an easy task, so be ready for your agent to forward you a number of negs from some of America's finer publishing houses. But comfort yourself by thinking about how badly you'd be abused by sending your manuscripts cold to these people.

When something does pan out, you're all set. Your agent will negotiate an advance for your book - as low as a few hundred dollars to as high as several thousand. Of course, the agent skims 15% for services rendered, but you're still sitting pretty. Cash the check and start writing your book. Send us a copy when you're done. For free, of course, cheapo.


Brian M Logan

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