I often speak with people who tell me they have written a novel which is quietly gathering dust in their attics. For various reasons, they were not able to find a publisher. In this publishing age, people can self-publish quite easily and relatively cheaply. Still, some would-be novelists would like to find “a real publisher.” If you are one of those people, gentle reader, I have four difficult truths about how that happens. Read on at your own risk.
As someone who will have her first published mystery out in November from Five Star Publishing, I am in a good position to list some of the hard truths I discovered on my way to publication. This will be my debut novel, although I self-published a creative non-fiction book four years ago.
I have discovered four hard and fast truths since I began looking for a publisher in December, 2012. The first is you must do your research. But the hard truth is that even doing your research may not land you an agent or publisher. Let’s look at that today, and I’ll deal with the other three hard truths in future posts.
Rule One. Research is essential because they hold all the keys to the gate. Hard truths: Agents and publishers do not care about your life. They do not care that you’d rather send a full manuscript than one page. And even though you have spent days/months/years on your baby, agents and publishers have no emotional attachment to that stack of paper. They are in business to make money. You might be a means of doing that, but they will never discover that you’ve written the most amazing novel that will make both of you money if you don’t do your research and give them what they want.
I began by looking for an agent rather than a publisher. People “in the biz” realize that only agents can speak with large publishers, and even some middle and small presses now require agents. I figured, “Why not think big?” So let’s begin our research rule with my best thoughts on finding an agent or small publisher.
To find an agent (or even to find publishers), I browsed the most recent edition of The Writer’s Market. This can be bought in an online format or a hard copy, but I used the local public library’s edition for $0. Then decide what genre you are writing. In the case of mysteries, it might be amateur sleuth, noir, private detective, etc. You must research the agents or publishers who represent what you are writing. Otherwise—you guessed it—your email will be deleted in seconds.
Once you make a list of agents or small presses, you must check their websites to see what they want you to send. This is crucial: they are not interested in your entire manuscript. They want one page, three pages, a 3-5 page double-spaced summary, or some other piece of writing about your novel. They may want it single-spaced, double-spaced, attached, or copied-and-pasted. Rarely will two of them want the same thing, so this is going to take some time on your part. Important codicil to rule one: Give them only what they want. Otherwise, your email will be deleted. Seriously.
The Writer’s Market also has good advice on “how to.” You will need to send a “query email” to agents (or publishers.) This one-page email must follow a certain format. It includes the agent’s name and agency; title, word count, and genre of your book; a brief summary of the plot that will have them enthralled; your writing history; and your contact information. It must be letter-perfect. Then you will either attach or copy-and-paste the information they requested to your query. You would be well advised to remember that publishers delete 90% of their queries based on the first page of the novel. My guess is that agents are even faster. So make sure your first page is smashing.
I also researched agents (and small presses) by looking at newsletters from a mystery group I joined called Sisters in Crime. They publish a newsletter to their members that lists writers who have recently sold a novel, and that listing includes the agent and publisher. I carefully note the agents who represent writers who are writing in my genre, cozy mysteries.
Finally, I research agents by going to a bookstore and pulling cozy mysteries off the shelf. I check the acknowledgements to see if the author thanked his/her agent. Then I put the agent on my list. (Obviously, if looking for cozy publishers, simply note the publisher.)
I ended up with a list of 80 agents. Then I sent out the queries in batches of 10. I never sent a query email to more than one agent in a particular agency because that practice is frowned upon. This process took about four months. I would love to tell you that this plan netted an agent for my novel. It didn’t. But the hard lesson here is that I did everything right but even following the rules, I didn’t find an agent. It’s likely the path to a publisher will also have some dead ends. A Plan B is always good, and mine was to go with smaller presses next.
Stay tuned for the hard truth of Rule Two.