Gently Rapping Your Head Against a Brick Wall, AKA Getting a Publishing Agent
Posted by Alan Edwards
Have you ever wanted to inflict yourself with crippling self-doubt? Perhaps you enjoy your current job, but miss the feeling of receiving rejection letters or simple stony silence? Does poring over a business form letter to ensure that it somehow manages to be both professional and stands out from the crowd all at the same time sound like a lot of fun to you? Then I have a suggestion for YOU! Try to get yourself a publishing agent!
OK, let’s say you’ve written a novel. Maybe it’s about children eating flowers, or children-eating flowers (amazing what the simple hyphen can do), or whatever – that’s not important – but it’s something you spent a lot of time and energy and sweat and possibly blood depending on how susceptible to papercuts you are. You are very, and understandably, proud of your work. It takes a lot of gumption and imagination and perseverance to do it, so great job! You like your work, the people who read it like it, and based on 50% of the incredibly crappy novels you’ve read over the course of your life, you think, Hey, I’m going to try to get this published! This is where the fun begins.
In order to get published through one of your standard big publishers, you can’t contact them. They don’t want to hear from anyone. They don’t want manuscripts, blurbs, synopsi, essays, or Tweets from just anyone. They will ignore whatever unsolicited material they receive. In a way, it’s completely understandable. They would be deluged, and probably are anyway, by a sea of dreck, wherein a few gleaming pieces of treasure may float. Some poor soul, or at least several dozen poor souls, would be forced to read through them looking for something that looks marketable, steadily falling behind the growing mountain of submissions. The publishing house would be forced to increase their staff, who would spend much of their time looking through work that wouldn’t be published anyway, therefore wasting the publishing company’s valuable time and money. It’s untenable! That’s where the publishing agents come in.
The agents allow the publishing companies to sublet the responsibility of sifting through the sweaty and sincere efforts of a million aspiring and wanna-be writers to someone else’s shoulders. Even better, the agents don’t cost the publishers a dime. Instead, the agent gets to sift through the hopeful masses, find something that they think is worth selling, and take a cut of whatever the writer might have earned for selling their work. It’s a win-win for the publisher and agent, because the publisher saves money on the cost of staff to do the heavy sifting, and the agent gets a job, essentially, by acting as the middleman. The writer benefits by, well, the writer doesn’t benefit very much, but who cares about them anyway.
But that’s how it is. The agent uses their contacts in publishing to network and sell their, I mean the writers’, ideas and work, looking for someone willing to take a chance on the book. They chat up their old bosses or colleagues still working in publishing and try to convince them to give this unknown writer a shot. Without one, it is impossible to get published by a company with the resources and clout to bring a work to a wide audience. In a way, they perform the same function as a lobbyist in Washington or a real estate agent. Or, if you will, a pimp.
In order to attract a pimp, errrr, agent, a query letter is necessary. This is a business letter, professional in tone, that generally follows a presubscribed format that contains information about your work and yourself. It can’t be too long, or it won’t get read. It has to have a good hook, or it won’t get read. It has to distill the 80,000 or more words that you set down into about 80 that are still exciting and thrilling, or it won’t get read. It allegedly helps if you can include information about why this particular agent that you’ve never met or spoken to would be the perfect fit for your work. That’s pretty much it; that’s your shot. Some agents, bless them, allow you to include a sample or synopsis of the work, but few do. Instead, you’ve got this chance, that a form letter that they probably receive several hundred of in any given week will pop out at them and say, SIGN ME!
So you’ve got your query letter and found some agents to send them too. Fantastic! Send them along! Then wait. A lot. No, I mean a long time. True, you may sometimes get a very prompt rejection, which, considering the alternatives, is actually quite refreshing to receive. Instead, most of the time, you’ll wait about two months before getting rejected, or you’ll hear nothing at all. Just crickets. Did you send it to the wrong address? Did the dog who ate the mailman eat it as well? Did it get lost in cyberspace? Someone might know, but it ain’t you.
In theory, you might get an agent to agree to take a cut of your money for forwarding your material to someone else. If so, congratulations! You win! Otherwise, you get to enjoy the same feelings of rejection, alienation, disappointment, and self-loathing that I myself currently feel, all for free! A deal like that doesn’t come every day, so ACT NOW!