So, you’ve written the definitive novel of the twenty first century. What do you do then? Sit back and wait for the plaudits to flow in? Well, no. So far nobody knows you’ve written it, apart from your friends and your writing group.
You’ve had to think like an artist when you wrote the first drafts of your novel. You’ve had to think like an editor, when you revised them with a readership in mind. Now you have to make another mind-switch – you have to get your manuscript in front of a publisher, and to do that you have to think like a marketer. Nobody said it was easy being an author!
Who would your book appeal to? What makes it different? You’re competing with an awful lot of other manuscripts. There were almost 305,000 books published in the US in 2013, and 184,000 in the UK in 2011. And in the Internet era, we can all be publishers – in 2012, around 391,000 books were self-published in the US. Sounds good, right? However, these are the tip of the iceberg. Literary agents receive around 1,000 manuscripts a year, and select only a handful of them. Most manuscripts simply aren’t good enough in their judgement, and even among the good ones, they will only choose the ones they think will make them money.
So, in my case, I’d finished the manuscript of A Prize of Sovereigns. I was sure it was as good as I could make it without input from a professional editor. I was upbeat. I was proud and confident. I researched what I had to do to get it published.
You can of course, as I noted, self-publish. The Internet has shaken up the publishing industry. It’s very easy for anyone to publish now, through sites like Amazon Kindle and print on demand companies like Lulu. But it’s not so easy to self-promote and distribute. That’s, at least in theory, where traditional publishers with their distribution networks and marketing departments still have an edge.
I decided I wanted to publish traditionally. Then came the next hurdle. Most of the big publishers will not accept unsolicited submissions from authors. To get to a publisher, you generally need to go through a literary agent. There are exceptions to this. A number of smaller publishers will look at manuscripts from un-agented authors. You can find out who these are by signing yourself up to the free newsletter produced by Authors Publish (www.authorspublish.com). Signing up to this newsletter is another one of my top tips.
Undaunted, I set about finding myself an agent. You can find agents’ details on a number of websites or in the Writers and Artists Yearbook. Look carefully at what they say they’re looking for, and who they already represent. I made up a list of agents who seemed to have an interest in my kind of book, and then worked my way through them. Some I e-mailed, some I saw face to face. Literary festivals are good places to meet agents. The annual Winchester Writers’ Festival is one of my favourites, because it has a reputation as an event where agents and publishers are actively looking for new authors. You get 15 minute sessions with agents, publishers or authors of your choice as part of the entrance fee. By the end of 2014 I had amassed 10 rejections.
One agent told me that A Prize of Sovereigns lacked the historical accuracy to be classed as history, and lacked the magic to be classed as fantasy. Another agent said no, it would appeal to both markets, but she didn’t relate to the characters.
When you submit to an agent you usually need a few sample chapters, a synopsis, and a query letter. Usually the synopsis has to be a page or less, though some agents want something different. Make sure you understand clearly what your agent of choice wants. I became quite adept at writing the synopsis for a complex story with seven point-of-view characters. Clearly, in a page, you can only outline the major elements of the story arc, so you need to make sure you know exactly what they are. Don’t get bogged down in detail. Something that helped me was writing a one paragraph summary of each chapter and then paring this down to the essential elements.
There are some dos and don’ts I’ve discovered about synopses.
- A synopsis should normally be one page.
- It is a simple and factual summary of what actually happens in your story. So avoid temptations to write as if you were creating the back cover jacket. Never use promotional language, such as describing your book as “heart wrenching” and never ask teaser questions like “what is the terrible secret Emily is hiding?” Give the answer, not the question.
- It should be written in the present tense. So, “Emily hides the terrible secret” and not “Emily hid the terrible secret”.
- The first paragraph should contain a statement of the main point of the book. This is your “elevator pitch”. An elevator pitch is the short 30 second description of your book that you would give if you suddenly found yourself face to face with your most desired agent or publisher in a short ride up in a lift.
- Subsequent paragraphs should add more detail
- The query letter is a business letter. Don’t put in lots of detail about how you came to write this book. They don’t care. The letter tells the agent what your book is, who it is for, how long it is. Simply state the title, the word length and the genre.
Don’t under any circumstances say that you don’t write to a genre. That will just make you seem like an amateur who doesn’t know anything about your market. The letter also includes any detail about your life and your writing credentials that may be relevant. For example if your book is set in a restaurant kitchen and you are a chef, this is relevant. If you have been published elsewhere, or have won any writing competitions mention these. Finally, it should give an indication of what it was about this particular agent that made you approach them.
I learned all these things, and put them into practice. I chose my agents with care, but I still got 10 rejections. Rejection hurts. Don’t let anyone tell you different. It eats away at your self-confidence. I’ll tell you about how that affected me in the next post.