Monday, October 29, 2007

Yes, It's a Challenge to Publish for the First Time

If an aspiring writer looking to become a first-time published book-length writer didn't have enough mounted against them, they also have to worry about finding the perfect agent. Maybe not the perfect but at least a good enough agent that will get the writer's book published.

Saturday morning, the wife and I went to a seminar at her school about getting a literary agent. A woman who was once an agent, now a publishing industry consultant for writers gave the seminar. Overall, she did a very good job at providing some examples of good query letters and touching on the marketing aspects that a writer should think about when it comes to writing a marketable piece of non-fiction.

One good aspect she addressed in regards to the marketing aspect came down to having qualifications. As any writer knows or as the myth goes, everyone talks about having their own stories, their own ideas and and their own perspective on something. You should write what you know, after all. The problem is, though, is that everyone has their own stories, their own ideas and their own perspectives on something.

Those stories, those ideas and those perspectives need to be marketable. All those things have to stand out above the crowd, but not only that, they need to add something new to the cultural dialogue. Further, they should know what they're talking about, not just on a conversational level. If a book didn't have some degree of authority, then books would be just as reliable as the Internet and Wikipedia, and we all know just how serious we take those things (yeah, they can work pretty well, but most everyone I know makes that refrain, ". . .but it's Wikipedia, you can only take it so seriously.")

So how do you get around not having qualified authority about a topic but wanting to write about it? You don't have to go back to school to get a degree, you don't have spend years and years in an industry or anything like. Just recruit someone who has already done that as a co-author! They don't have to do any of the writing. Just give them a byline and consult with them, and you're that much closer to selling your idea to an editor.

Writing about the stock market or something financial, get a stock broker or a banker to help. How about family matters, self growth, drug use? Enlist the help of someone in the mental health field. Space, the final frontier? Get a physicist, a cosmologist. . .maybe even a geologist if you're writing about say. . .the geological history of Mars (now that I think about it, I could probably at least try to enlist the help of one person from my past).

So enlisting the help of someone with qualified authority on a topic to co-author a book with you is a good tip. A few people in the seminar took issue with the discussion about working to find an agent, though. I did, at first, too, thinking that I should ask the lecturer what kind of questions to ask agent to evaluate them and so forth. At that point, though, I convinced myself that the lecturer would address it at some point.

Unfortunately, the lecturer didn't address it. . .and one aspect about the writer-agent relationship highlights the anxiety an aspiring writer might feel about this issue. The first agent who gets the contract (whether written or verbal) to represent an author's manuscript generally gains the primary rights to the commission on that manuscript. So if that agent sucks at marketing it and can't sell it to the degree that the author goes to another agent, the new agent and the first agent have to negotiate who gets how much commission and how much more commission gets taken off the top.

Just because a contract has been made, even if the first agent sucks at their job and didn't accomplish anything, the author loses out on that much of their income when the book gets sold. The same goes for the new agent if they work their ass off and successfully sell the manuscript. That sucks!

What makes this whole thing worse is what does an inexperienced author know about negotiating with an agent? What does the novice writer know what's important about the relationship with an agent, about the ability of the agent, the connections of the agent, the agent's track record, etc. etc.? There's probably tons and tons of factors that I don't even know about, being a novice author, myself.

I can understand how other people in the seminar could feel frustrated by the whole thing, especially when the lecturer pretty much stressed the subjectivity of starting such a relationship and it's really about what you feel comfortable with. The reality of it didn't get me down so much, though.

A few years ago before moving to Chicago, the wife and I had aspirations of buying a condo when we moved here. We had contacted buyer's agents and even had one (or was there a few?) agents take us around to look at a range of condos, some amazing and some not so great.

Interviewing and communicating the agents went pretty well until I asked for references, as the Homebuying for Dummies book advised. One of the agents, who we referred to us by a career counselor whose daughter's friend moved to Chicago, even got really angry, indignant and gave me a huge e-mail lecture about how it took a lot of nerve to be referred to her then ask her for references. In my mind, I'm thinking, "Hey, there's a lot of money on the line. I want to make sure that I'm working with the right person."

After talking with a lot of people who had their own thoughts of buying a home, though, they pretty much said that they never asked for references. I learned, from that experience, that it's pretty rude to ask for references from a real estate buyer's agent. I still don't necessarily agree with that bit of etiquette, but it's the way of things, and I'm not about to get worked up and inconvenienced sticking to a dumb bit of principle like this.

But at least if the buyer agent doesn't work well, you can't pretty much end the relationship and find another one. I don't know about a seller's agent, but at least with a buyer's agent, it can be an inconvenience, but not a permanent matter. As an insurance agent, I know that it's pretty much the same there, no matter how much it sucks to be that agent losing a customer. . .even though at times, the customer can lose a little extra when they cancel a policy early.

I'm going off on a tangent, though. In the end, it pretty much sucks to be a newbie author in this situation, especially when a lecturer can only say that it's a subjective matter and it's up to you to figure out whether a relationship with a particular agent will work or not. It takes experience to learn these things, and obviously, a newbie doesn't have the experience.

Like with other things in life that depend on experience, it pretty much means that the aspiring writer has to suck it up and take a chance. And in the end, it probably shouldn't matter a huge amount. Sure, there's a few people who have broken out of the gates running and sell tons of their first books, but really. . .how often does that happen? If it is that good of a book and does sell that many copies, you've got to be one idiot to lose out on a lot because of the commission of a first agent that turned out bad. Really, do you plan on paying a fee, paying large amounts for unreasonable expenses or making a deal with someone who wants a huge commission?

I'm not expecting grandeur with my first ever published novel. If it happens, cool, but it's very much unlikely. Doesn't mean I'll hold back on making it good. Even if I miss out on some amount of money here and there, that first published novel or book really should, for someone who wants to be a professional writer, be more of a marketing piece.

It's kind of like taking a crap job where you get treated like shit to get experience and learn stuff. The first and maybe even the second and third books are about getting your name out there and getting the experience of working in the industry. If you continue losing out on the business relationships, then you really need to consult with other people in the industry and compare your own experiences with their's, especially if they're successful in the industry.

Really, like many other things in life, you just gotta be smart, take the hits of inexperience and learn from them. If you do and persist, you're bound to make it.

At least. . .that's what I keep telling myself.


Jose said...

I'm a huge fan of Teresa and Patrick Nielsen Hayden, editors at Tor books. They contribute to the superlative Making Light on their website, and have covered topics in this arena, along with interesting discussion in comments (the posts are great, but the comments are what make Making Light special).

Anyway: On the getting of agents:

I culled that from an index a fan of Making Light made (A Writer's Index to Making Light); there's a ton of interesting information for writers on the subject of literary scams, the publishing industry in general, manuscript submission, and so on. Being in the publishing industry, Teresa, Patrick, and others have what I feel is very useful information. The index:

The_Lex said...

I checked out some of the most recent entries on the blog. . .lots of anti-Guilani and disaster-themed entries, huh?

Fascinating, but I'll have to check out the fan-generated index to get into the more publishing industry entries. . ..

Thanks for the heads up, Jose!

Jose said...

No worries; trying to keep up with Making Light is like trying to drink from a fire hose. I'm still reading in August, so I have no idea what they're up to, politically speaking. Tor books is based in NYC, around the Flatiron Building, so they tend to have a NYC POV. I generally don't pay attention to that, but I've found the stuff on writing is awesome.