The Path To Publication Part 2: Preparing For Battle

Recap: I'm writing a monthly column about trying to publish my crime/noir/something novel, 'Apophenia'. Part 1 explained a bit about the book and its history, as well as my decision to seek an agent. On to Part 2, and some actual useful information. 


I want to start by saying "thank you." I'm still feeling some trepidation about this column, but the positive comments and encouragement I got last month were fantastic. And now that I got all the lame stuff out of the way--like telling you about myself--we can get down to actual real work: 

GETTING ORGANIZED

So I have a book and I want to get an agent so I can get my book published. Which means I have to get on with the less romantic part of the writing process: The Business Side. Also known as The Boring Side. It's a necessary evil but it does make me a little antsy. Despite being able to write for six or seven hours at a stretch, when it comes to this kind of thing, I have the attention span of a ferret on crack.

But, if you want an agent, it takes a lot of research and reading, because there's a right way and a wrong way to do this. 

Wrong way: Carpet bomb every agent in existence so as many of them as possible get your material. 

Right way: Strategic targeting; look for agents who skew toward your sensibilities, influences and style. 

You would think that querying every agent ever would increase the odds of you getting representation, right? Not really. Querying agents who prefer YA or won't consider genre lit doesn't help me. Which means when I'm looking for an agent, I'm doing more than reading bios on a website; I'm checking for other clients, reading interviews, anything I can get my hands on. Ultimately, I'd rather send 10 good queries than a hundred blind shots from the hip. 

So, how does one find an agent? Or at least, how am I compiling my list?

WHERE TO LOOK

First, there's Writer's Market, a yearly publication that lists agents and publishers. But that's a little primeval, isn't it? I mean, researching by flipping through the pages of a book? There has to be better way...

Another good source is AgentQuery.com, an online database that lets you search for agents based on categories or interests. Better, but I want something that's a little more interactive. 

Then there's QueryTracker.net, recommended to me by the indomitable Richard Thomas. It does more than just help you find agents. It lets you maintain a database, keep track of queries, and read notes left by other users. You can join for free, but for $25 a year you get additional perks.

I've chosen to use QueryTracker. The fee is nominal and the organizational options are rad (I can mark which agents I want to query and which ones don't apply to me, making the process a bit more efficient). 

But this isn't the only way to find agents. Here's another fun method: 

Go to Amazon. Search for an author or book you think is similar to you and your work. Now, go to the section where it says: Customers Who Bought This Item Also Bought. That'll bring up a bunch of other similar authors. A little Google-fu and I can figure out who their agents are, and see if I might be a good fit in their client list, if they're accepting submissions, etc.

When it comes to what I want in an agent, I'm looking for someone who is into both genre and literary fiction, with an interest in crime and mystery, as I believe my book is straddling some sort of line around there. I'd like someone who has a good acumen on the digital distribution front, because, yes, it's the future, and also, I have a cool little idea for the eBook version of my novel. I'd prefer to have an agent who works in New York City. (Not that I wouldn't be open to an agent in Wichita or Duluth, it's just that I'm a fan of proximity.) Finally, I want someone who is going to shove me out of my comfort zone, and challenge me to work harder and write better. 

So, that's what I'm looking for. There's a couple of agents I've got my eye on (and one in particular at the top of my list). Fingers crossed!

Further reading: 25 Things Writers Should Know About Agents by Chuck Wendig. 

A NOTE ON BETA-READERS

So, I had planned to give my draft one more run-through to smooth it out before starting the querying process. Instead, I fielded it out to my wife and some friends, to get a little air on it. The edits and suggestions I've gotten back are phenomenal (in that I made some dumb mistakes and now I can fix them). 

I've been really hesitant to show the book to people I know. And on top of that, I didn't like to talk about it while I was in the middle of it (so whenever someone asked me what my book was about, I would tell them it was about a boy wizard in a school for magic, and I would then feign disappointment upon hearing of Harry Potter).

It's funny (to me) that I was more comfortable with the idea of strangers (agents) reading it, and not my friends and family. I don't think I was afraid they wouldn't like it--not everyone is going to like it. My mom is going to smile and nod and tell me I did a very nice job and then call a shrink. I accept that.  

I think the thing that really scared me, and still scares me, is what I'll reveal about myself. Everything is an autobiography, fiction or not. This book is a thing I spent three years writing and now people are going to read it and know all my opinions and thoughts and stuff--things that belonged only to me for such a long time. You keep something locked away for so long, it makes you worried about what'll happen when it's set free.  

WHY I'M DREADING NEXT MONTH

So, that's where I am. Building a list of agents and tightening the bolts on my manuscript and standing on the precipice, peering into the abyss, wondering whether I should be afraid of it staring back. I'm still getting that bipolar feeling, where I vacillate between My book is the best thing since books were invented and My book is the worst thing since Kim Kardashian was inventedI'm in a glass case of emotion.

The hard part--and it will remain the hard part throughout this process--is patience and perseverance. And also making it through the next step in one piece. Next month I'll talk about query letters and the horrible experience of writing a synopsis.

The query letter I can live with. It's sort of fun. It has to be brief and snappy and to the point, and I love playing that game where you have to take a thought that's ten words long, and figure out how to say it better in four words. It's the synopsis that makes me want to smash things. 

A synopsis is a rundown of your whole book, and it's supposed to be only a page or two long. An entire book in one or two pages. If I could do that I wouldn't have needed 350 pages (double-spaced). C'mon

I'm not going to post the synopsis here, because I'm hoping y'all will want to read the book at some point and I don't want to spoil it for you. But the query letter, maybe I'll put that out, and just strip out any information specific to agents. 

So, guys and gals, tell me what you want to see next month, or ask me questions if you have them. Oh, and I'm leaving you with another reading assignment: How To Get A Book Deal In 3,285 Days. It's by Matthew McBride, author of the excellent Frank Sinatra in a Blender. If this does not get you revved up, you are in the wrong place. 

Image of 2012 Writer's Market
Author:
Price: $7.95
Publisher: Writer's Digest Books (2011)
Binding: Paperback, 1024 pages
Rob Hart

Column by Rob Hart

Rob Hart is the class director at LitReactor, as well as the publisher at MysteriousPress.com. He's the author of New Yorked, nominated for the Anthony Award for Best First Novel, as well as City of Rose and South Village. Short stories have appeared in publications like Shotgun Honey, Thuglit, Needle, Joyland, All Due Respect, and Helix Literary Magazine. Non-fiction has appeared at Salon, The Daily Beast, Birth.Movies.Death, The Literary Hub, Electric Literature, and Nailed. He lives in New York City. Find him online at www.robwhart.com

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Comments

docbarna's picture
docbarna February 2, 2012 - 8:55am

Hi Rob,

Enjoying the series, and would love to see the query letter. I'm on the cusp of a beta-reader release myself, and dreading it. How many copies did you send, and did you try to get a variety of people (ages, outlooks), insofar as that's possible within one's inner circle?

 

Rob's picture
Class Director
Rob from New York City is reading at a fast enough pace it would be cumbersome to update this February 2, 2012 - 9:02am

@docbarna: I gave the book to my wife and five friends. I'm open to sending it to more, but just haven't had time. 

Two of the friends I gave it to are very close friends who know me well.

Two of them know me, but not as well as the first two.

The final one is a colleague who I work with but haven't ever actually met. 

Three are women, three are men. 

The two points I wanted to hit on were female readers because I need that perspective, and people who don't know me that well because they won't get pulled out of the story by people and places that I've re-appropriated for the story.

Jason Richards's picture
Jason Richards from PA is reading Family Fang February 2, 2012 - 9:12am

Hey Rob,

I had commented on your first column...we're in a very similar position. I'm actually a half step ahead of you and wanted to offer my experiences.

Finished my book at the end of October. Gave copies to my wife, a female friend, and a male friend who has worked as my unofficial "editor" ever since we started blogging about comic books together. There's definitely something different about letting people you know read the book. My immediate reaction is to discount everything they say and chalk it up to them not wanting to disappoint me. At the same time, I did get some useful feedback.

Next, I researched the agent list the same way you did (except I didn't pay for QueryTracker...preferring the old method of keeping handwritten notes). Sent a baker's dozen of queries to 12 agents and one publisher. The publisher requested to read my book 19 minutes after I sent the email (he has since declined the book).

Overall, I heard back from 10 of the 12 agents. 8 of them were rejections, though all were quite cordial and encouraging. The other 2 requested copies. One said that it was "rare to get a query as original." He has since declined the book, but promised to read my next one.

Still waiting for good news from the second agent.

It's an interesting process, an exercise in ego for sure. However, I spent 12 years in advertising pitching ideas and grumbling at inane edits, so my mental scar tissue is thick enough to absorb the damage at this point.

Keep up the journey!

CStodd's picture
CStodd from NY is reading Annie Prouxl's Fine Just the Way It Is February 2, 2012 - 9:20am

Rob, excellent piece again and thanks. There is such a great thing about finishing. Its one thing to start something and have it exhaust itself but to stay with it and finish is so badass. I suppose now the next phase to finish is the business side, so go get 'em!

Rob's picture
Class Director
Rob from New York City is reading at a fast enough pace it would be cumbersome to update this February 2, 2012 - 9:22am

Thanks Jason. I was going to keep an Excel spreadsheet on the agents but I've been so overwhelmed with my responsibilities here and elsewhere, I figure having the built-in functions of QueryTracker might help me stay organized. And hey, maybe I can write the cost off on my taxes, since I'm writing about it...

Good luck with the second agent! Next month I'll be talking about the process of querying, as I'll have the book done, wrapped up and out by then. 

Gayle Towell's picture
Gayle Towell from North Plains, Oregon February 2, 2012 - 9:46am

Rob—I mentioned this in the comments on your previous post, but I went through this process (successfully!) a little over a year ago. Yeah, the synopsis bites ass. Not all places require one, though. My method was to use query tracker, get a list of agents who seemed like they represented the right sort of stuff, read the comments on there and such, then I’d google the agent and look, not just at their website, but for interviews with them. Those were usually the best. The interviews usually revealed their query pet peeves and allowed me to tailor my letter to them. I sent out weekly batches for a while—maybe 5-10 or so a week. In total I think it was 30-40 queries. One thing I noticed (and perhaps this should have been obvious) but with e-queries, the day you send it matters. Do not send e-queries on a Friday for sure. You’ll get virtually no responses—not even “no.” Tuesday or Wednesday seem ideal.


As you write your query letter, take lots of breaks from it. Write it, come back to it after a break, work on it again, and repeat. Have someone else read it before sending it out. As for the synopsis—I don’t know if I ever figured out how to make mine not suck. I basically went through my novel chapter by chapter and wrote a sentence or two summary of each, then pieced it all together in a few pages or less. But again, not all places require a synopsis, and maybe that’s a good thing.
 

Here’s a website I found helpful during the query writing process: http://www.writersdigest.com/editor-blogs/guide-to-literary-agents/succe...
It gives tons of sample query letters written by writers who got signed, along with commentary from the agents who signed them.
 

Also, as you start sending, keep yourself busy with your next project. It takes the pressure off the expectation and helps you feel like you aren’t just sitting around and waiting. Sending letters out in weekly batches is nice too because you are constantly floating hope—you are never in a place where you have been rejected by everyone you’ve sent to. You are always still waiting on some of them.
 

Good luck!

WonkyMonky's picture
WonkyMonky February 2, 2012 - 10:30am

Great column-- I'll come back for more. I'm in the beta reading phase right now. It's so freaking scary to allow people to read your work. Especially when they know how long you've been working on it. Thanks for sharing your process. I don't feel so alone right now.  

Juice Ica's picture
Juice Ica from Rhode Island is reading The Twelve by Justin Cronin & Beautiful Creatures February 2, 2012 - 10:54am

Thank you for putting into words why I was so terrified of the beta reader situation. I was struggling with why it was so hard and you summed it up beautifully. It was also so completely gratifying to know that someone I trusted and respected loved what I had written. It is amping me up to finish this dang book!

Rob's picture
Class Director
Rob from New York City is reading at a fast enough pace it would be cumbersome to update this February 2, 2012 - 10:56am

@WonkyMonky and JuiceIca - DO IT! Beta the shit out of your work. It's terrifying but it'll be fine. 

Ryan Hartman's picture
Ryan Hartman from Philadelphia is reading The Neverending Story by Michael Ende February 2, 2012 - 1:39pm

It's good to have an established reader who isn't a writer.  Writers / editors who are friends will try and re-write your book for you if you let them when often it's better to get an early draft in the hands of just an everyday book fan.  Get them to focus on when they started to get bored, when they started to lose interest, when they found themselves being pulled out of the story.  Have them pay attention to how they are feeling as they read.  It can really help with the pacing of a story.  General feelings like that are way more constructive than somone saying "Well I thought the relationship between herp and derp was strained in the second act you should bla bla bla bla".

eirikodin's picture
eirikodin from Auburn, NY is reading Mediterranean Caper by Clive Cussler February 3, 2012 - 10:16am

I have to say that your tid bit on the beta readers is exactly how I feel.  Letting my friends, family, and even coworkers read what I have written certainly irks me.  I feel that my friends and family would either be confused and/or horrified while my coworkers would think of my as a blithering idiot.  With that said, because of how I feel about letting them read my work it may be best for me to finally let them read some of my writing.  It will most likely increase my confidence in my skills and material.  As for posting stuff on the cult and litreactor websites I actually look forward to feedback from these complete strangers which I find to be somewhat odd.  Thanks for the good article.

Doug Bornemann's picture
Doug Bornemann July 14, 2012 - 1:34pm

I was recently in a similar position, agonizing over a synopsis for my draft novel. I found Beth Anderson's suggestions for composing synopses so helpful I devoted my second blog post to her (dougbornemann.com). Her tips transformed the process from pure torture to--well, if not downright fun, then at least a straightforward and manageable task. As a side benefit, by requiring me to generate several synopsis versions of increasing length, the process helped me to better understand my own plot structure, highlighting the relative priorities of each subplot. Highly recommend! Best of luck with the journey.