During our one-hour phone conference, my Kirkus editor reviewed the options for publishing my manuscript of Hattie’s Place, and talked to me briefly about marketing. The choices would be:
(1) to procure a literary agent to promote the book and get it into the hands of a publishing company;
(2) to contact a publishing house directly and attempt to get a publishing contract; or,
(3) to publish the book independently, through one of the many online publishing services such as Create Space (http://www.createspace.com), Lulu (http://www.Lulu.com) , or Xlibris (http://www.Xlibris.com).
My editor felt that it would be worthwhile to approach a literary agent who specializes in women’s fiction. She encouraged me to emphasize the romantic aspect of the story in my cover letter or query, stressing that there is a large market for romance novels.
Although I ultimately decided to go the independent publishing route, I did send queries to seven different agents before turning back to Create Space, as I had done previously with my memoir, Retirement: A Journey Not a Destination. I’ll explain why later on, but first I want to share with you what I learned about the publishing process.
My Kirkus editor had said that I should look for names of literary agencies that advertise an interest in publishing women’s fiction and romance. When I began googling agencies, most of what came up were services offering to locate agents, not the agencies themselves. That seemed to me like one more layer of cost that I was not willing to assume. Besides, I had read that a reputable agent would not charge anything up front, but would work on commission, once they accepted an author’s manuscript and actually located a publisher. I finally found several sites containing the information I was looking for, and they became my go-to places for learning the fundamentals of the publishing and marketing process.
Preditors and Editors at https://www.pred-ed.com. This non-profit organization has acted as a guide for locating publishers and publishing services since 1997. It has many helpful tips on approaching literary agents and publishing companies, and posts a warning section that lists businesses and people to approach with caution.
Writers’ Digest at https://www.writersdigest.com. The magazine is published monthly, but can be accessed online. There is a wealth of information about how to do just about everything related to writing and publishing, in every genre. I found the articles on how to write a synopsis of a book, and how to compose a query and cover letter, to be of particular help. There is a great deal of free information; however, it is a magazine, full of advertisements in the form of opportunities for writers to spend their money on everything from conferences to tutorial videos to books.
Writers Market at https://www.writersmarket.com is an online resource offered as a part of an online subscription to Writers Digest. It is an entire data base to help authors sell whatever they have written. The data can be filtered by genre and sorted according to types of services–e.g., literary agencies, publishers, conferences, writing contests, just to name a few. The user can personalize his/her search and store the information on a personal dashboard. For example, if I searched literary agents specializing in women’s fiction, from the 2013-2015 list, I could save the names that interested me to my dashboard and visit them at a later date. Writers Market will also send me a memo whenever new sources are added to the general data base on literary agencies specializing in women’s fiction.
From the sources listed above, I researched how to contact a literary agent, how to prepare a query letter, and how to prepare a synopsis of my book for a literary agent. I will write more about that in the next blog for those who are interested in a more detailed description of the process. However, as I stated earlier, I ultimately decided to reject the idea of a literary agent and go the route of independent publishing, for a number of reasons, all of which were drawn from my research.
I learned that literary agents receive hundreds of queries from which the top 5-10 percent may be chosen. That means that many excellent manuscripts are passed over.
First time authors like me are at a decided disadvantage. Most agents are looking for clients who are likely to produce sequels to the books in whose genre they are writing. For obvious reasons, the agent would seek a client with prior successful publications, or one with strong writing credentials such as a masters in creative writing.
Due to the large number of queries that any given agent receives, it can often take up to two months for a response; and, many agents do not respond at all unless they are interested in the manuscript.
If an author is fortunate enough to land an agent, there is no guarantee the agent will find a publisher for the book. Even when a publisher is found, it can sometimes take months before the book is ready for the market. Nevertheless, I read numerous examples of authors who reported that through persistence and determination, they ultimately landed an agent and succeeded in publishing their books. For many, this translated into over a hundred queries being sent over a period of one to two years. A fortunate few reported that their manuscripts were accepted after the first round of queries.
The conventional wisdom appears to be that the road to finding a literary agent is paved with rejection and disappointment, even when the book is well-written. However, the writer should take heart in knowing that the process is extremely subjective and not take rejection too personally. Any agent’s list is determined by the specific genre, style, and content that the given agent is seeking. Unless your manuscript fits with the specific criteria of that given agent, it will not even be reviewed, much less chosen for that agent’s list.
So, the trick is to select an agent who is seeking manuscripts from the genre in which you have written, with the specific style and content that meets the agent’s criteria; and, to write a query which conforms to the agency’s submission guidelines and, at the same time, communicates to the agent that your manuscript should be selected over the hundreds of others manuscripts that are queued up in his/her e-mail account. And, you need to do all of this in 300 words or less.
The writing of both the query and the synopsis is a rigorous but essential exercise that any writer would do well to undertake, regardless of whether he/she seeks an agent or decides to publish his/her manuscript independently. Writing the query forces the author to identify the market niche and the audience to which the book will appeal.(e.g., Readers who like upmarket literary fiction, young adult fiction, mysteries, nonfiction, etc.) That may sound simple, and I suppose it would be for an author who had set out from the beginning to write in a specific genre. However, my book cut across several genres and so I was unsure which one to choose.
That was, until I composed the synopsis. The discipline of distilling 90,000 words into a 500 word summary, made my brain hurt. But it helped me to understand the essence of my own novel by forcing me to cut out everything but the basic plot, themes, and main characters. It was the mental version of a forensic scientist separating flesh from bone to study the skeleton of the organism under examination–not a pretty process.
Once I completed the synopsis, it was easy to see that my novel would appeal most to readers/agents seeking character-based women’s upmarket literary fiction. Writing the synopsis helped me write the query and helped me to distill the content of the book into a sentence or two. And so, when asked what my novel is about, I will say:
Set in rural Pickens County, South Carolina in 1907, Hattie’s Place is a coming of age story that explores the nuances of friendship, love, and loyalty, from the perspective of nineteen-year-old Hattie Robinson.