If you're interested in writing books, or selling a book you've written, this post is for you. If you couldn't care less about the business of writing, you can still read this post, but I recommend going over to YouTube and watching videos of kittens instead. You will probably be a lot happier. Because, kittens!
Man, now you're all distracted. Who suggested kitten videos, anyway?
If you're interested in publishing, you probably know that one of the keys to getting in at one of the big publishing houses is having an agent. So I'm going to tell you how I got my wonderful, fabulous agent, and then, if you're very nice, I'll tell you why she's so wonderful and fabulous.
Step 1: I wrote. A lot. My whole life. All kinds of things - essays and (really awful) poetry and short stories and novellas and novels. And I rarely tried to get them published, because (a) I realized most of them weren't very good and (b) I was learning - how to write, what to write, why I wanted to write.
Step 2: I read. A lot. My whole life. All kinds of things - essays and poetry of varying quality, and short stories and novellas and magazine articles and song lyric magazines and novels and the backs of shampoo bottles and newspapers over the shoulders of people on trains.
If you think either of those steps is obvious, I'm sorry to tell you that it's not so to everyone, and I really can't stress their importance enough. An author may have overnight success, but a writer never does, and in order to be a good writer and take the step towards publication, a writer must be a reader before all else.
Step 3: I learned about the industry. Long, long ago, when Auntie Eleanor was a wee babe and books were still carved lovingly onto slate tablets, she read the Writer's Market. Like, from cover to cover. All the articles, even the ones that had nothing to do with what I wanted to do. All the listings, including ones for genres or markets I had no interest in. Because by reading all those, I gained a great understanding of how the publishing industry works, from journals to magazines to independent and major publishers. There are internet resources available now that do similar things - I'll talk about one of my favorites later - but a book like Writer's Market (and not just buying it, btw, you do need to read it!) or one of its offshoots (Novel & Short Story Writer's Market, Screenwriter's and Playwright's Market, New Kids on the Block Fan Letter Writer's Market, etc.) will give you some great advice and an insight into common wishes, rules, and no-no's.
Step 4: I wrote some really awful books. And then I didn't send them to anyone. Or at least I didn't send them to anyone I wasn't related to or hadn't seen in a bathing suit and therefore had blackmail material on. Because, you see, they were awful, and I understood that just because I had finished writing a novel didn't mean I automatically had to, or deserved to, or wanted to, get it published. I was learning.
Step 5: I published some things that were good - essays and short stories and articles. I learned how to polish and rewrite and evaluate my work objectively.
Step 6: I wrote a good novel. And then I didn't send it to anyone. I let it sit and marinate and then I edited, and then I sent it to some of the aforementioned blackmail subjects and took their opinions and edited again, and edited some more, and then, just for fun, I edited it.
Step 7: I wrote a query letter. Honestly, at the time, I thought it was harder than writing the whole novel. It's an entirely different form of writing (but it will prepare you for other things you need to do as an author, which I talk about in another post), and it was hard. But I did it. And I'll tell you what made it much easier. I followed the rules. All those rules I'd learned about back in Step 3, which frankly had been continuing concurrently along with Steps 1,2, and 4-7, totally came in handy. I didn't print it on pink paper or put it in a coconut or scent it with Love's Baby Soft. I didn't bully the agent, I didn't claim to be anything I wasn't. I wrote a hook, a brief synopsis, gave my bio, and said I looked forward to hearing from them.
Step 8: I sent out said query letter. I did a bunch of research - looking at the acknowledgements pages in some of my favorite books, going back to Writer's Market, using a site called AgentQuery (and, btw, reading the listings carefully instead of just starting at 'A' and working my way down ye olde alphabette). I followed the instructions the agents laid out, and yes, it is a pain. Some want e-queries. Some want synopses. Some want sample first chapters. Fine. I put it all in a spreadsheet, followed those instructions, and sent them out.
Step 9: This is important. I did something else. My friend and former editor, the gloriously funny and wise Hanne Blank, says, upon sending her book off to her agent, "Bye, bye, little book! Write when you get work!" This is absolutely the right attitude. Start writing something else. Start a Bocce Meetup group in your area. Write something else. Read some wonderful (or terrible, because why not?) books. Learn to crochet. Oh, and write something else. So to review, you're (a) not waiting by the phone and (b) producing the next wonderful thing you're going to share with your blackmailable friends.
Step 10: Repeat Steps 8 and 9. A lot. I have no idea how many queries I sent out. But it was a LOT. And there were requests for full manuscripts, and partial manuscripts, and in some cases we got all the way to heavy petting, but then it was never quite right, you know.
Step 11: I got an agent. And I talked to her, and I evaluated her as much as she evaluated me, and I thought about it for a while, and then I said yes. Because it was right. She got the book, she got me, we had the same vision for what kind of publisher we wanted for it, she made me laugh. It was just right. I just knew. Like you know with a good melon.*
My agent, the glamorous and depressingly gorgeous and bright and talented and fierce Elizabeth Winick Rubinstein, of McIntosh & Otis, spent a long time working with me to revise the manuscript again before she was ready to send it out. And then we did, and she checked in with me periodically and kept me in the loop, though mostly I was re-purposing Step 9 and letting her do her job, and then one day, one weird, fabulous day, she called me with the multiple (!) offers she'd gotten on The Weird Sisters. Um, yeah. That'll be another post.
What Elizabeth does is what a good agent should do - she helps me creatively when she can. She sells my work. She reads all the legal crap I don't understand, translates it for me, lets me know what's a good deal and what's not, and then makes sure I get paid. She advocates for me with the publisher. She asks tough questions I don't want to ask. She translates publishing terminology for me. She negotiates contracts. When we go out to dinner, she lets me try one of her Hen of the Woods mushrooms so I become completely obsessed with them. She lets me snuggle her dog and takes me on tours of the Village. She offers her opinion on cover art, headshots, rights offers, and morning versus afternoon yoga classes. She is fabulous, and everyone should have an agent as much in their corner as she is in mine.
The fact is, I haven't told you anything eye-opening here. I got an agent, a great agent, by following the rules. And, frankly, so have most of the writers out there. It's not flashy, it doesn't make for a great story, but if you're serious, and you've got writing worth being serious about, it might just get you the attention you need.
*Name that movie!