The road to publication is long and without road signs. There’s no one to hand you a map or rules to the road. So when every would-be author hits the road with his or her finished manuscript, they are vulnerable to predators. The scent given off by a new author is very powerful. The wolves and bandits will smell you coming a mile off. I think first time authors must smell like cut bait.
For most authors, finding a publisher is a Tolkienian adventure. My personal quest to find a publisher took two years and cost me hundreds of dollars. But in hindsight, a number of my run-ins with the wolves and bandits were of my own creation. To my credit, I dodged the perils that line the road to publication without serious injury, but they could have been avoided all together, if I’d been a little smarter.
Gone are the days when fiction authors could sub their novel directly to the New York publishing houses and be given a chance. Every author needs an agent to be their guide to publication. But, how does the naive author know what a reputable agent looks like? This is where I wasted a lot of time and money. I scoured the various Writers’ Digests of Literary Agents because that’s the right thing to do. Unfortunately, these digests are like yellow pages. They list the good, the bad and the ugly. I sent blanket queries and synopses to over a hundred agents without a clue of who I was introducing myself too. Not surprisingly, I introduced myself to some of the carpetbaggers along the way.
I had agents who said they loved my work and praised the great book I’d written when I’d only sent them a one-page query letter. One agent threatened to trash my name in the industry when I quizzed her on her standard operating practices, then she sent my manuscript back in pieces. Luckily, I never broke the golden rule of dealing with agents—DON’T PAY AN AGENT ANY MONEY UPFRONT. Regardless of their reasons, reputable agents don’t ask for money before they market your book. I know it’s tempting to accept an agent’s offer, but the newbie author has to know when to say no. So when an agent asks for $700 for printing and postages expenses or $200 to read a manuscript before they’ve done a thing, don’t haggle or negotiate, say no thanks and move on.
Although it seems to be a growing trend for reputable agents to charge expenses for postage, I’ve known authors to have paid less than a hundred dollars. But the agents bill after the fact, not before. If any agent says they are charging expenses, ask what they are for and get an estimate before you a sign contract.
So, if I was setting out on the road to publication again and was hunting for an agent, what would I do differently? First off, I wouldn’t bother with the market guides. An unsuspecting author doesn’t know what they are letting themselves in for. If you want to find an agent, start with their trade association. The Association of Authors’ Representatives, Inc. (AAR) lists their members, a code of conduct that all their members must abide by and a great list of questions to any and all agents who offer representation. There are some great agents out there who aren’t AAR members, but finding them is hard, so the AAR is a good place to start. Another good resource is writers’ associations. If you are a mystery writer, consider joining the Mystery Writers of America. If you are a horror writer, consider joining the Horror Writers Association. They have a member’s directory where the authors list their agents. The first time author should write to these agents. The agents listed represent someone with a reputation in the same genre and someone who has made a legitimate book deal.
After doing things like this—the right things—the first time author still may not find an agent. I didn’t. This means you probably aren’t going to get a book contract with Harper Collins, Penguin or Time Warner, but it doesn’t mean all publishers are off limits. There are a number of small and medium sized publishers who will deal with unknown writers. You need to do their homework. Scour bookstores and jot down the names of publishers. Seek out their websites and check out their guidelines. If a publisher says they will take unagented submissions, then submit. You have nothing to lose…
…or do you?
There are bad publishers out there, just like there are bad agents. The same law about agents applies to publishers—DON’T PAY A PUBLISHER ANY MONEY UPFRONT. Publishers pay authors, not the other way around. Again, if you are asked for money, walk away. If you see an author mention their publisher and you’ve never heard of them, check them out. See if the publisher’s claims live up. If a publisher says their books are available on Amazon, use the search facility on Amazon. Punch in the publisher’s name and see how many of their titles pop up. If you don’t find any or it says to allow six weeks for delivery, there may be problems with distribution. And if so, your book might make it to print, but not much further. Authors shouldn’t be afraid to ask for changes to a publisher’s contract. If certain rights are asked for and you aren’t happy, negotiate them out. Again, the likes of the HWA and MWA do have typical sample contracts that authors without agents can use for reference.
The road to publication is fraught with danger. But it doesn’t mean the first time author has to be mugged and left for dead. First timers need to stop sticking pins in the pages of digests and hoping for the best. To put things into a plumbilogical terms, when hiring a plumber to fix a broken pipe most people don’t go for the first name they see. Usually, they ask for a referral and check that the plumber is licensed. The search for an agent and/or publisher should be the same. You need to know the industry and ask around, choosing from trusted sources.
Following my tips won’t guarantee you publishing success, but they should help prevent you from walking into some of the horrors that lurk on the road to publication.
Good luck, people.
PS: Nickolas Cook interviewed me for David B. Silva’s Hellnotes. You can find the interview here.
Great info here, Simon. There are several aspiring authors I know who need to read this, so I’m passing it along.
Crazy story about that agent that tore up your manuscript and sent it back! That sounds like someone who needs to get on the worst agent list, if he/she isn’t there already.
Terrific post, something all aspiring authors should read. I’d like to also suggest authors register for Publishers Marketplace, an online database that lists every deal made along with the agent and acquiring editor. A great resource to see what agents work in your genre and how reputable they are.
I hate to admit it, but I bought some snake oil early in my writing journey. It was one of these situations in which an agent recommended a certain book doctor (editorial services). Later, I would come to find out that the book doctor had unethical relationship with agents and was the target of an Author’s Guild investigation. Luckily my manuscript was not affected, but I was $500 poorer.
These days in this increasingly competitive marketplace, I hear that agents can recommend freelance editors. Look into the credentials of these editors and what published manuscripts they have worked on. It’s just like anything else, referrals, referrals, referrals. And don’t be afraid to ask what clients an agent represents and also talking to those clients.
Fantastic post Simon, great information people should take note of.
Great post Simon! These are words for newbies to live by.
I used PM almost exclusively, figuring if an agent/publisher was serious about what they were doing, they’d want one of the foremost industry leaders to know about it.There’s also Preditors and Editors,http://www.anotherealm.com/prededitors/ a great warning site for unsuspecting newbies.
Simon,All of this is great advice. I got ripped off with my first agent — and learned that lesson well.
If you do know anyone in your genre, asking about agents becomes easier and, at least in the mystery field, authors tend to be generous with names and gossip.
One other place I always look before suggesting an agent to anyone is Preditors & Editors — it used to be run by SFWA, but might have a new group keeping it up to date. It doesn’t give a ton of info, but you’ll know if there’ve been problems with either agents or publishing houses.