Hardly anyone knows I write.
I have a few trusted beta readers (those are the first people who read your stuff after you, the alpha reader, have finished it. Or at least, finished it enough that you need somebody else to tell you what doesn’t make sense, because you’ve been through it so many times that you can’t even see the words anymore). These friends have read my novel-length stuff, and haven’t hated it. They’ve been helpful and critical and absolutely necessary. I owe them all.
Cincinnati Fiction Writers knows I write, because I started showing up at the meetings last year and they can’t make me stop going. I’d never met any of them before my first meeting, but several have become trusted critique partners, which is a two-way street. I think I’ve been useful to them.
My husband knows I write. He plays Grand Theft Auto while I toil. The sounds that echo from downstairs are sometimes quite horrific.
But other than that, hardly anyone knows.
That’s because once you start telling people you think you’re a writer, you have to answer the dreaded Three Questions.
How many books have you written?
Are you published?
How much money have you made?
The current answers are: three and a half, no, and negative couple hundred bucks. The first two answers should be self-explanatory. The third is because I’ve spent a bit on books about writing, attended a small local writers’ conference, and paid for a couple of professional critiques of my stuff (highly recommended for noobs).
I’m not published yet because it takes forever. Here’s everything I’ve learned about traditional publishing.
You don’t just write a book and send it off to Penguin or Random House or Random Penguin or whatever they’re calling themselves this week. The big five publishers don’t accept work from authors. They only consider books sent to them by agents. So to get a deal with a big publisher, you need an agent.
There are hundreds of agents in the US and abroad. Each of them gets between 50 and 200 unsolicited queries a week (that’s writer-talk for the letter you send saying, “wow, my book is awesome, don’t you want to sell it for me?”). Of those, maybe half are total garbage…from well-meaning folks who have written a whole lot of words but not, in all honesty, a real book. The rest are varying degrees of decent to great. Of those 200 queries, most agents request manuscripts from maybe 10 writers a month. They have those manuscripts for anywhere from a month to (my current record) 10 months (so far), and during this time you just have to wait. They’re really busy, and their existing clients come first. Hopefuls wait their turns.
Of those 10 or so a month, most agents take on maybe 6 new clients a year. So you can do the math on that. The odds are horrible. Even if your book really is awesome, chances are really poor that you’ll entice an agent to even read it, and if they do, it has to really blow their socks off for them to take it on.
This is because they have to truly love a book to sell it. I’ve been doing some editing for a small publisher to help out a friend, and I’ve read the stories I’ve worked on at least five times, making a new pass with every revision the authors made. That’s pretty easy on short stories. Very time-consuming if it’s a novel. And that’s what an agent does…leads you through those necessary revisions to get your novel ready for them to send to the editors they think might like it. So they have to not only love it, but want to read it five times, AND truly believe they can sell the thing to a traditional publisher when the time is right.
“That’s simple,” you scoff. “I’ll just have my brother-in-law pretend to be my agent. He can submit my compilation of grocery lists, and sign his emails The SuperAwesome Great Books Agency. They’ll never know.”
Yeah. Trust me, someone else already thought of that, and ruined it for you. They know who the real agents are, and your brother-in-law ain’t one of them.
So the search for an agent to represent you is a soul-crushing experience, full of rejection and waiting, waiting and more rejection.
What are your other options?
You can self-publish. That’s a whole ‘nother post.
Or you can look to the smaller publishers. There’s a new class of small publishing companies out there who accept unagented submissions. You still have to wow them with your manuscript, but there are a lot of them, and taking on new authors is the mainstay of their talent pool. Most of them are primarily e-book, with Print on Demand options. It’s a lot cheaper for them to do it this way, because they (and you) aren’t stuck with a thousand copies of The Crapola Novel that didn’t sell, but they still paid to print. It allows them to take more chances than the big publishers, because if a book flops, all they have invested in it is the editing time and the cover design. These things are valuable, but to a publisher, not that expensive. Your book isn’t going to be at Barnes and Noble, but it will be on all the websites, and you can take printed copies in to your local indie bookstores, who might be interested in them.
Why is this a better option than self-pub?
One reason is quality control. Anyone can self-pub anything now. Write any length piece of garbage you want, and you can have it up on Amazon within the hour. This doesn’t mean it’s good, or that anyone at all will or should buy it. But you can do it. Which means a lot of self-pubbed stuff is awful. Some is pretty awesome, but it’s hard to tell the difference until you’ve bought it. When you’re buying a book that’s been professionally published, not only do you know that someone besides the author thought it didn’t suck, but generally someone besides the author has edited and formatted it, which means more than you’d think if you’ve never read anyone’s first draft. They’re always a mess, and they always need help.
The second reason is that even the small presses have some marketing help. Not much. But honestly, even if the big dogs pick up your book, you’re going to be mostly on your own to market it. The days of nationwide book signing tours for new authors are long gone. Even the big guys make their authors do most of the work themselves. It’s the new reality of publishing. But if you have a publisher on your side, at least you have someone who’s been there before to advise you how to do it.
Where do I fit into all this?
I’m in the waiting part. I have a couple of manuscripts out with a couple of agents. That’s pretty exciting, at least for the first few weeks/months of the wait. Then it kind of isn’t as exciting anymore, but hope reigns supreme. I have a manuscript out with two small publishers. Fingers crossed. And I have a Work-in-Progress that I’m just sure is “the one,” the book that will open all the doors, and make me a household name. I thought that about the first three books, too, but this time I’m just sure of it.
And that’s it, right there.
That’s what you do.
You write something. You mess with it. You get folks to read it. You mess with it some more. You send it out, and get it rejected. Then you write something else. And it’s a little better than the one that came before it. And I remain convinced that if I can keep doing that long enough, one of these books will be The One. Household name? Probably not. But someday a stack of books is going to arrive on my doorstep in a UPS box.
They’ll be my books.
And that’s worth waiting for.