Monday, July 03, 2006

How to get published, part 3: Finding an agent or publisher without getting burned

So you followed step one. You wrote something. Then step two: you polished your writing to a high gloss. Now you're ready to send it out, right?

Okay, fine, you probably are. But hold on to your horses, cowboy, because there are a whole lot of bad guys out there who'd like nothing better than to hold up your literary stagecoach and take all of your cash. But they won't do it with guns and evil sneers, no. They'll smile and coo and tell you what a wonderful author you are, and how they are just dying to publish your masterpiece for only... and they name a sum in the hundreds or thousands of dollars.

These people are called vanity publishers. They call themselves POD publishers, but POD (Publish on Demand) is a technology, not a type of publisher. Stay away from them. If you want to know why, read my earlier posts:

Also see this article:

And these sites:

Okay, convinced yet that this isn't just one author singing a sour grapes song? That the publishing industry in general has a low opinion of vanity presses, and for good reason?

We're not talking about self-publishing here. If you want to know all about self-publishing and how to do it right without getting ripped off, see the Books Just Books website for tons of free information. They know all the details about self-publishing. I don't. So go there if you want to know about how to publish your book yourself. It's a great site.

So, assuming that by "getting published" you mean that you want publishing rights to your book to be purchased by a traditional publisher who will pay you an advance and royalties, let us proceed in that direction.

Finding an agent

In some genres, you can still do very well without an agent. The children's market, much of the how-to market, paperback romances, mysteries, and similar markets still have plenty of publishers who will accept queries or manuscripts from us ordinary mortals. But in other areas, such as literary fiction, an agent is almost a necessity. And the markets in all fields are getting tighter, so agents are becoming more and more valuable to all sorts of writers who have been doing well without. If you know your market well, you'll know if you need an agent or not.

Agents can open doors that writers cannot open for themselves. Good agents know editors well, know their tastes, and know what kinds of books they can sell to which editors. Agents know how to negotiate deals and get the best contract. Good agents work hard for their percent take of the total, and are worth every penny. What agents can't do for you is sell unsellable work. Nor will an agent take a manuscript that's already been shopped around to forty different publishing houses. Nor are they likely to take a book that's been published by a vanity press and sell it to a traditional publisher. They're agents, not miracle workers.

Bad agents are worse than no agent at all. How do you spot a bad agent? The most obvious red flag is that they charge upfront fees, such as reading fees. The best place to check out an agent's reputation is the Preditors and Editors website. Having a well-known bad agent's name on your submission is the kiss of death. Don't let an agent with a bad reputation bamboozle you.

And where do you find a good one? Frankly, marketing to agents is as hard as, if not harder than, marketing the manuscript yourself. You check sources such as the Writer's Market (look for a current issue in your library or bookstore). You ask agented writerly friends who know you and know your writing if they think their agents would be interested in your work (but you do not ask writers you don't know well to recommend their agents, because if they did, that would imply that they endorse your work, and they may not be willing to do that). You check out the Association of Author Representatives and search for agents who represent work that is like yours. You join writers' association, such as the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America or the Romance Writers of America or the Society for Children's Book Writers and Illustrators to get access to their lists of agents.

Make a list of possible agents that you want to contact.

Finding a publisher

So you want to go it alone? Fine. Plenty of authors do. If you're selling articles and short stories to magazines, you will probably have to go it alone, since agents usually don't take on small jobs like that. Unless you're selling regularly to the New Yorker or Vanity Fair, magazines don't pay enough to make the commission worthwhile to an agent.

So how to you find a publisher? What you don't do is answer one of those ads in writer's magazines that say, "We want to publish your book!" Most of those are the vanity presses -- especially the ones with full-page ads (smaller, less glowing, more honest ads may be those of legitimate book printing services). If you're not sure if a publisher is a vanity or not, look the company up on Preditors and Editors.

One way to find a publisher is to get a copy of the latest Writer's Market. Some genres have their own market guide, such as the Children's Writers and Illustrators Market. Make sure you have the most up-to-date copy. Peruse the listings for publishers that publish works that are like yours. Go online and check out their websites so that you can see exactly what they publish. Just because you've written a science book for kids doesn't mean it's suitable for every publisher that says they publish science books. Each publisher has its own flavor, its own style.

Another way to find a publisher is to stroll through the library or bookstore looking for books that are similar to yours. Check out who publishes them. Write down the name and website of the publisher, and again see what kinds of books the publisher already wants.

There's no use in sending your manuscript to a publisher that doesn't already produce books similar to yours. There's no deadlier phrase in a query than, "I know you don't usually publish books like this, but..." Don't argue with the publisher. Don't try to tell them why they should publish your manuscript when it isn't anything like what they publish. They know their business. You don't.

Make a list of possible publishers that you want to contact.

And now send the manuscript off, right?

Almost. You're almost there. You still need to have the manuscript formatted correctly. You probably need a query letter and perhaps a synopsis or outline. And you need to know exactly what the publisher or agent wants, so you can deliver exactly that. Those are subjects for the next installment.

How to get published series


Anonymous said...

What an excellent article. It addresses things I seem to go over often...again and again and again. I think I'll just give people a link to you!

Anonymous said...

A link is always a good thing. I'm glad you're enjoying the series. I'll make sure to put links to this series in the sidebar so that people can find it easily.

Melinda R. Cordell said...

Good stuff. You go!