An agent or publisher is interested – what happens next? #getpublished

Congratulations. An agent or publisher is showing enough interest to want to speak with you.

There is usually a slow process of meeting each other, to see if you will get along. The agent or publisher will shower your story with praise, then probably suggest changes to your script and see how you respond. Sometimes they are slight tweaks and can be fixed in a week or two. Other times, you can be asked to do substantial redrafts that take months. Throughout all this, they are looking to see how you handle the situation.

They want someone who responds quickly and takes advice well. If you let yourself be distracted by other pressures IMG_3442

or decide now is the time to close your laptop and take a gap year, IMG_3443you risk losing their attention.

Agents first

Do not expect a contract at an early stage although it can happen. Agents are more likely to be prompt about contracts than publishers and will send you a standard form of around a single page. In July we looked in detail at what agents do.

If a contract does come your way, keep breathing and think about it. You do not have to accept it straight away. You can ask for thinking time if there’s another agent/publisher you’re hoping to hear from. And it’s a good idea to consult the UK’s Society of Authors or a lawyer about the legal terms. There’s usually little you can renegotiate in standard provisions but it helps to be clear about what they mean.

As soon as the agent is happy with your script and has taken you on, your script goes out to chosen publishers. It came as a shock to me that agents get rejections too but it does happen. Maybe someone just pipped yours to the post or the heat has gone off a particular genre in the space of weeks. I have met an author whose agent was passionate about his thriller and spent five years hawking it around the world, but could not place it. There is a long history of classic novels being rejected many times. Rejection does not mean your agent is incompetent or that your novel is worthless. Stay calm, polite and positive – and keep writing the next thing.

The upside is that, at this level, you know your work will have been carefully read and that your agent will sift and report on feedback. If not, go elsewhere.

A publisher says yes

With undying thanks to your agent, you are sitting in the offices of a real, live, smiling publisher who has your work on the table. (In July, I posted detail about what publishers can do for us and when. My first post is here, and part 2 is here.) The publisher’s editor has put you through yet more rewrites and has satisfied the marketing and money people at the new acquisitions meeting that this deserves a chance. You’ve got a deal!

Congratulate yourself again – very few new writers reach this stage. Most publishers take at most one first-time novelist a year. A publication date is set and the cover’s agreed. You have more work to do now:

  • Your help will be vital with publicity and this starts before publication. Do not expect to get much of your next book written over the next weeks and months.
  • Prepare your own website if you have not already. Start blogging about your new book and how you came to write it. Podcasts go down well too.
  • It’s never too early to start your social media spinning.
  • Make friends with your local booksellers. They’re lovely and are usually delighted to meet local authors. Your publisher should provide you with some free publicity copies to hand out.
  • Contact local newspapers and blogs to ask for interviews and reviews.
  • Plan your book launch.
  • And try above all to keep writing the next thing. You’ll need it sooner than you think.

They’re asking you to buy some of your own books?

Here comes one of the hardest facts about today’s publishing world: your publisher may well require you to buy some copies of your book yourself, at discount. I first encountered it in 2009 when it was described as a contribution to printer’s costs. It’s very common now, the idea being that it encourages you to market it. The discount (paying 40% of the full price is not uncommon) also means that if you sell at 80%, you are still making more profit, more quickly, than waiting for royalties.

Fame and fortune at last?

Most first novels sell fewer than a thousand copies. That’s why the Booker prize was invented, to help literary novels reach a wider audience. Publishers and agents hope that by the time they publish your third or fourth, preferably in a series or the same genre, the public will have noticed you and the whole exercise will become financially worth their while. They are gamblers at heart. You may be one of the lucky ones who has a substantial advance from a big publisher who is going to flog your book with a great big publicity budget. I hope so. IMG_E1806Even if you’re not … You have become a strange new creature, a published author. That can lead you to other ways of making money (coaching, talks, radio and television appearances). It means too that people see you differently. Instead of the friend they are used to, the one who spends most of the time alone and gives a slightly dejected shrug when asked how the writing’s going, they see a confident, new you with a book in your hand. That book has your name printed on it and they are being asked to buy copies. After all the years of lonely scribbling, there is no finer sensation than welcoming friends to your book launch and watching them queue, smiling and laughing, for you to sign copies for them.

Congratulations, you’ve made it. It has all been worthwhile.

I wish you the very best of luck and happy writing!

What do agents do? #getpublished

You have enjoyed your feedback stage, seen a feedbacker friend in a new light but never mind, got stuck in to your final re-write and now that it is ready, you are heartily sick of the whole thing in mind, body and spirit. Congratulations, all this is as it should be.

What next?

Some writers send their draft off too early, are appalled to receive a couple of prompt rejections and decide that self-publishing will form the right bridge between them and their adoring public. Other writers know from the outset, having researched the self-publishing world and the complexities involved, that it is the right route for them. The website of the Alliance of Independent Authors is here.

‘Traditional’ publishing was always a colossal mountain to climb, it still is, and has many advantages if you have the patience to climb it. While self-published writers have the advantage of control and royalties that arrive quickly, they cope with their own editing, formatting, cover design, promotion, distribution etc. or pay others for those skills. There is plenty of help out there but it’s a lot to take on. Traditional publishers demand more promotion than they used to, but generally they give you more time to write and sometimes engage in nurturing your writing career.

But nothing is ever simple in this life. Let’s look first at what agents, editors and publishers do.

AGENTS FIRST – what do they do?

A good agent is a many-splendored thing. A great one could be your friend for life. Scott Fitzgerald’s agent Harold Ober managed the Fitzgerald finances for them, supported the family in all sorts of ways through their troubles and even gave their daughter Scottie away at her wedding. This is probably more than you can expect from an agent these days but you never know.

Agents vary in what they offer but the basic menu is this:

  • Knowing the publishing market is their job. We writers study the book shop shelves to see what’s doing well and what shape it takes but agents are experts in what different publishers specialise in and what they are looking for now. Who is after a new Tudor novel with elves? Who wants a Goth crime writer who has travelled solo by sled to the North Pole? It’s the agent’s job to be in the middle of this maelstrom, right up to the minute.
  • Agents form links with particular publishers, usually because they like each other and are excited by the same sort of reading. You can find out which agents like your sort of novel by looking at your favourite recent novels in that genre and seeing who the author acknowledges as inspiration and help: you’ll usually find their agent’s name there.
  • With all this in mind, an agent can help you reshape your novel to fit. Sorry to break it to you but the rewriting is not over yet. The difference this time is that you’re among professionals and whatever I said before about picking and choosing your feedback, forget it. Professionals know best. Some agents decided some time ago they have no time for new writers or slush piles. I can see their point and respect it. (About twenty years ago I was shown a slush pile in a theatre. Piles of uninvited drafts for only the previous two or three months covered a whole wall up to the ceiling. The temptation to dump the lot must have been overwhelming.) Some agents recognise the need to bring on new talent but prefer to let university courses do the polishing for them. Other agents, and these are our fairy godmothers (usually female), do offer to coach us in improving our drafts before sale, sometimes at a price. (Below: Zaporozh’e Cossacks writing a letter to the Sultan, 1880, by IE Repin)IMG_2599At this stage, it can begin to feel as if everybody including the bus driver is writing your book instead of you. The final decision about changes will always be yours, yes. But you will learn an enormous amount from an experienced agent who is prepared to coach you, even if she does not in the end manage to sell your book.

THE THREE GOLDEN RULES 

It’s time for a refresher.

  1. If the writing is coming to you hot and fast, at all costs catch it. It may not be perfect – you can refine later.
  2. Come hell or high water, always finish your first draft.
  3. Golden Rule 3 – ta- dah! – is this. Successful professionals are a joy to be among and they know their job. Listen carefully to them. (I used to say publishers are always right – this is the redraft.)

The publishing world is always uncertain. No-one knows for sure what will be a success; they are all working on calculated guesses, with first books more than any other. What else do agents do for us?

  • Agents circulate your book. They do want to make money from it for you both, otherwise they don’t eat. So when the draft is right, they will send it out. That can either be a process of sending it to one to three publishers at a time or by auction, depending on the book. This is the agent’s call, not ours, though (s)he may discuss it with you. Finding a publisher may happen in a flash but it is more likely to take time. It does not always end in success either – it came as a great surprise to me that agents get rejections too. I will discuss the many reasons for rejections that are nothing to do with the quality of your draft in a later post. But many publishers will only take submissions from an agent, not from you direct, however charmingly you ask. Even if they do, a submission via your agent stands a much greater chance of being read. If an agent keeps peddling the same rejected draft without discussing modifications and tactics with you, find someone else. Your agent should field rejections for you and break them to you gently, spotting what is an invitation for further negotiations and what is not. The most wonderful thing is that with a good agent, you are not alone in this minefield. Your agent is your champion.
  • Agents help you make contacts. Each time your draft makes a targeted landing on a publisher’s desk, it leaves a calling card about you and your writing. Always be polite, hard-working, committed to a long writing career, easy to deal with. Staff in agents and publishers move from one job to another, and sometimes they live with each other and chat about their work. You want them to remember you positively for next time.
  • Agents negotiate and agree your publishing contract. It’s all gone well! You have met your agent, an interested publisher has been found and there is talk of a contract. Agents and publishers do like to meet writers face to face if possible. It’s like any job interview: they want to see if there’s enough in common for this important relationship. It’s about more than what’s on the page. An exception was my first novel (a ghost story for the 10 – 14 year age group published in Dublin, 2005) where I sent off the draft, heard nothing for a year and a half and then a contract arrived in the post out of the blue. I sat on the stairs in shock, convinced it was a mistake. Surely there was some poor darling in Galway opening my rejection. (I was well used to rejections by then: all my thoughts here are hard-earned.) So I rang them up and heard the good news that the contract was valid. There was no agent involved then but I learned later how wonderful it is to have someone on my side who can crack a deal. In the UK, you can also check things yourself with the excellent Society of Authors, through their website or on the phone.
  • A warning about contracts. An agent’s contract is likely to come by email pretty soon after you’re being taken on, and can consist of just one clear page. Publishers can take a lot longer to get on with the paperwork, if they get round to it at all. It’s not unusual to be scrabbling around with sub-clauses at the same time as you’re approving your book cover and planning a launch. The reason, as a publisher said to me once, is that a contract for an unknown author’s first book may ‘not be worth the paper it’s written on’. What if the author does not manage to finish the book as wanted? What if the publisher decides not to publish after all, or is taken over by a company with a different agenda? What is anyone going to do about it? The publisher can’t write the book and a first author cannot force publication. Neither party can prove any quantifiable loss as first books rarely make a profit of more than a thousand quid, sometimes less. There, I’ve said it. Your first book is very unlikely to make you rich. It’s the third book your publisher and agent are gambling on.
  • Agents know about foreign and translation rights and that is where the money is. Think way beyond where you live to how your book might work in India, China, Africa, Europe and the Americas.
  • Advances. I haven’t mentioned these yet because they’re not what they were and for a first-time author, they will probably be negligible. Do you go for the biggest advance anyway? However hungry you are, an independent publisher might serve your book better, give it a longer life and more attention.

These webpages are worth a look in The Writers & Artists Yearbook  and Writers’ Digest

Many agents’ websites offer helpful pages of advice too. They really do want to help you soar.

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Next week, what are publishers for? Happy writing and good luck