Son of Self-Help: The Sequel

December 2006

What the Dead Know, coming in March 2007

Four years ago, I posted an essay to this website about how to get published. Blogging was still relatively novel. The terms “self-publishing,” and “vanity publishing” and “print-on-demand publishing” were often used interchangeably. Fan-fic was with us — fan-fic, like the poor, has always been with us — but it was still largely a private affair.

In other words, things change. Some of the advice I gave three years ago is no longer useful or relevant. So I decided to update the original Self-Help essay, an early Christmas and/or Hanukkah gift to the unpublished writers who visit this site. Here’s everything I know about selling your first novel. Unless you’re writing a children’s book, in which case — I got nothing for you. Seriously.

Step #1: Finish the damn book.

I know, that sounds a little harsh. It’s meant to. And it’s not even good across-the-board advice, as most nonfiction is sold on the basis of proposals. But, for first-time fiction writers, this advice is key: Finish the damn book. And don’t tell me about so-and-so, who got $1 million for scribbling an idea on a piece of paper, or such-and-such, whose first novel was sold to Hollywood before finding a publisher. The reason you’ve read these stories in the press is because they meet the definition of news. They rarely happen.

I cannot say this often enough: Finish the damn book. Go away, do it now. In fact, don’t even continue reading this list until you have a completed manuscript. Reduce your RSS feeds, stop spending so much time online, find the incentive you need to complete a manuscript. Make a friendly wager. Try NaNoWriMo. Or not. Just finish your damn book.

#2: Do your homework.

Finished? Time to find an agent. Yes, you need one. Even if you manage to sell your book on your own, or win a contest that ends in publication, you’ll need an agent.
Spend a day at a library or well-stocked bookstore. Surf the Internet. Find books that are similar in genre, story and/or tone with your (now-finished) book. Check to see if the writer mentions the agent in the acknowledgement section. If so, this functions as a pretty good reference, don’t you think? Do you publicly thank people who did a crummy job?

Once you have some names, stop by Preditors and Editors, do a quick check. Bookmark the site. You may want to return here later, when you have an offer, although a good agent will protect you from the charlatans. Visit Miss Snark, who covers every facet of submissions and writer-agent etiquette. Now you’re ready to query your list of agents.
Write a one-page letter to the agents, by name — NOT to “Dear Agent” or “Dear Sir/Madame” — that explains you are writing the agent specifically because the agent represents a similar writer and/or book. Agents are people. (So are editors, by the way.) They like to be shown respect, treated like individuals, granted common courtesy. Do I really need to tell you that the letter should be well-written? The query is a calling card for your voice, style and, most importantly of all, your professionalism.

Opinions are divided if you should include a sample chapter with a query letter. I would, but I have heard some agents proclaim at conferences that they would never read an unsolicited piece of writing, no matter how short. Do not send your entire manuscript. Wait to be invited. Then send it with an SASE. If you don’t know what an SASE is, you haven’t done enough homework.

If you can afford the small monthly fee, subscribe to Publishers Lunch. This is another good source of agents’ names. However, try not to obsess over the larger deals, the ones in excess of $250,000, which can be spread out over multiple books — and multiple years. Instead, take note that Michael Cader classifies sales of $1-$49,0000 as “nice deals.” There are no “embarrassing” deals or “stingy” deals or “ha-ha you’re such a loser” deals. As long as you make more than 99 cents, it’s a nice deal. Meanwhile, do read Cader’s very smart deconstructions of publishing articles that have appeared in the mainstream press. I was a reporter for twenty years and I frequently wrote about publishing. Based on what I know now, I probably made some pretty embarrassing errors. This is a specialized industry and even smart reporters can be tripped up.

Also, bookmark Galleycat, and try to find a single centralized blog that links to essential blogs in your genre. For me, it’s this one. What you’re looking for is sort of the ideal airport hub, where you can get everywhere you want to go, with no more than two connections. A good food court — that is, a blog with a lively dialogue in the comments section — is also a plus.

#3: Never surrender, Dorothy.

No matter how many times you come up empty after following the first two steps, don’t give up. Finding the right agent is as hard as finding the right spouse. You are looking for someone who loves your work because it takes that kind of passion to steer a book, and a writer, through this prickly and demanding marketplace. Bear in mind — there’s writing and there’s publishing, and you’d be surprised how little the two activities overlap. Think of your career as if it were an iceberg, devoting 90 percent of your time to writing and reading, only 10 percent of your time to publishing and the business side.

#4: Keep your wallet shut.

You may be familiar with Iago’s assertion: “He who steals my purse, steals trash, he who steals my good name steals all that I have.” Those who try to pry cash out of you by exploiting your dreams of publishing — they’re going for the exacta. Beware book doctors and reading fees. Be skeptical of those who say they can get you published if you pay them. Keep that Preditor and Editor link handy, and Google anyone who tries to charge you upfront for the glory of being published. I said above that any advance is, by Michael Cader’s glossary, a nice deal. Well, any money that you pay to get published is a raw deal.

So what about self-publishing? Well, in general, when it comes to fiction — don’t. Please don’t. I could give you lots of other reasons why self-publishing fiction doesn’t work for most novelists, but it’s been my experience that people who are predisposed to self-publish tend not to be open-minded on this subject. Yes, I know that mainstream publishing is not a true meritocracy. I know that people sometimes copy award-winning novels and submit them to various publishers under new titles, only to be turned down. I know how frustrating it is to be rejected. But paying a subsidy press to publish your work is not a corrective to mainstream publishing’s problems, as Keith Snyder explained so passionately on his blog. Instead, it puts you into pretty unsavory company, and even if you go in with eyes wide open, you can’t change the fact that this is a business that traffics in people’s dreams.

Think of it this way: There are innocent young girls who get off the bus in Los Angeles or New York, eager to be actresses, and they meet nice men in the Greyhound station who say they really love them and want to help them, and the next thing these girls know they’re staring in X-rated films and kicking a hefty percentage of their earnings back to those men, who aren’t so nice anymore. And there are hard-bitten, cynical young women who get off the bus willing to star in porn films as a stepping-stone, understanding the life they’ve chosen and all its attendant risks, yet determined to do it anyway — until they catch their big break. In the end, they’re both in the same line of work. No, I’m not saying that subsidy presses are like the porn industry — because at least everyone in the porn industry gets paid. Actually, I guess that’s not true since the advent of YouTube. Seriously, if you feel you must self-publish, then truly do it yourself, using a service such as lulu.com, which grants writers more control and options than most subsidy presses. Hire your own editor and copyeditor and designer. That way, you can put your books into the marketplace under the conventional consignment arrangement, which means small bookstores can afford to take a chance on you.

But try being patient first.

And if you try to tell me about Brian Wiprud or some of the other success stories in self-publishing, then I’m going to tell you about the time I went into a cafĂ© in San Miguel de Allende and ran into this girl I had known in summer camp in
Wisconsin twelve years earlier. I was there on vacation from language school, while she was en route to build houses in El Salvador. “Wow,” you’ll say. “What are the odds of that happening?”

Exactly.

See you in 2007.