Wednesday, January 03, 2007
Have you always wanted to write and sell a novel but weren't sure where to start? The writing part is hard enough but how do you get your masterpiece published and sold?
A series of three articles will give you a basic blueprint for options you can pursue, like:
• Agents – How to find a reputable one and learn who to stay away from
• Publishers – The best route for you may not be a big publishing house in New York … a smaller house may be just the right fit for you
• Marketing – Here are some steps you can take to set up appearances and what you need to interest local TV and radio stations
In this article, we’ll look at writing in general and whether you need an agent to sell your book. There’s lots to cover so let’s go!
The Great American Novel.
It's a catchphrase writers have heard -- and been saddled with -- for a long time.
Writing a novel is organic; it comes from deep inside. While there are some tried-and-true formulas, the best teacher comes in two forms: writing and reading.
Why? Because to be a good writer you must be a good reader.
If you're interested in a particular area -- or genre – of fiction like mysteries, romance or science fiction, read as many books by different authors in those genres as you can. You'll quickly sort out the good from the not-so-good and learn to develop an eye for what works in a novel.
Reading novels teaches you structure, pacing and tone. It helps you learn how to develop characters and experiment with point of view and tension.
In fact imagery, tension and release are the three big factors in successful novels. Imagery is word painting. Richness of detail is what helps you connect with your audience and find a common ground the two of you can share. Tension keeps you turning the pages. And release ties it altogether.
If you're into writing and want to learn the basics, there are several avenues to pursue. You can pick up some terrific how-to books like On Writing by Stephen King or Bird by Bird by Anne LaMott.
Magazines like “The Writer” and “Writers Digest” are chock-full of articles to help hone your style and voice. And there are a slew of online courses to choose from. Try searching the `Net using keywords like "online writing classes" or just "writing classes" and you'll get loads of choices. Investigate writing clubs in your area or find out how to join a critique group. And many writing ezines publish free newsletters each month with loads of information about writing how-to’s and the business of being a successful novelist.
To Agent or Not to Agent, That's the Question
There are as many opinions on this topic as there are bagel varieties in Manhattan. Before the competition to sell a novel became fierce, agents weren't as necessary as they are today. And agent’s commission these days runs anywhere from 15% – 20%
The Big Seven
If your heart’s desire is to be published with one of the "big seven" houses in New York -- names like Random House, Little, Brown, or Doubleday -- you'll probably need an agent to get your little toe in the front door. Many large houses refuse to look at unsolicited (read that unasked for and, many times, unwanted) manuscripts.
For the big houses, a good agent is like having a backstage pass to the hottest show in town. And it's because of the relationship the agent has developed with the editors.
Now, there are big publishers that will accept unsolicited manuscripts but the chances of getting a book contract this way are less than winning Powerball.
Small to medium-sized publishing houses are easier to get into for an unknown writer and it's also a place where you can develop a personal relationship with the publisher.
And that's what you really want: a relationship.
It's true that advances are small to not-at-all in these houses but you’ll have a greater chance of being published. And an agent isn’t as critical -- in fact it's sometimes less desirable -- for small and medium-size houses.
Where to Find an Agent
If you decide that having an agent is the direction you'd like to go in, there are a few caveats to remember.
Anyone can call themselves a literary agent. There is no professional licensing that separates the good from the bad. There are, however, a few things you can do to protect yourself and your future reputation when selecting an agent:
• Talk to other writers -- Word-of-mouth is one of the best ways to find an agent. Ask lots of questions about whether the writer is happy with his or her agent, if the agent is courteous and professional, and if the agent does what they say they'll do and on time.
• Look for the AAR (Association of Authors Representatives) designation -- This isn't an ironclad guarantee that an agent is squeaky clean or will treat you the way you deserve to be treated. It does, however, add a layer of credibility to an agent’s reputation because, by being members, agents must conduct themselves in a way that doesn't breach AAR's ethical code of conduct. AAR’s website can be found at http://www.aar-online.org/mc/page.do and contains a searchable database of agents.
• Never pay a “reading fee” to an agent -- Reasonable fees for miscellaneous expenses like postage and copies are an expected part of working with an agent but paying someone hundreds -- or even thousands -- of dollars to read your manuscript is unconscionable. That's the kind of agent to avoid.
• Read other author’s acknowledgments -- Frequently, writers will thank their agents in the acknowledgement section of their books. If you're interested in or have written a novel in the same genre, make a note of the agent’s name, gather the contact information, and submit a query letter.
You can find listings of agents both online at sites like AAR and Writers Market (http://www.writersmarket.com/) as well as in books updated annually like Jeff Herman's Guide To Book Publishers, Editors & Literary Agents: Who they are! What they want! How to win them over! and Writer’s Digest’s Guide to Literary Agents. The online version Writers Market has a database of over 6,000 listings, updated daily, and contains a section where you can store information you’ve submitted to agents and publishers. There is an annual membership fee to join Writer’s Market online.
There's also a terrific web site you can use as an agent and publisher research tool called “Preditors and Editors” at http://www.invirtuo.cc/prededitors/peala.htm. It has hundreds of listings and also gives warnings about shady agents as well as kudos for agents who are terrific. You can even find bulleted lists of do’s and don’ts for spotting scam publishers and literary agents.
Above all, when you find someone who is interested in representing you, don't jump into a contract with them just yet. Interview them. Yes, you heard that right. Interview them.
Remember, your relationship with an agent is a partnership and the right one could last a lifetime. If your questions are answered to your satisfaction and you feel a rapport with this person, ask for the names and phone numbers of three other clients. If the agent is reluctant to give out this information because of privacy concerns, ask if they would contact the writers and have them call you. You're looking for references here -- just like ones you’ve provided when you've gone on job interviews.
Because that's what this is -- you're interviewing for the position of your agent.
At a writer’s conference a few years ago, best-selling author David Baldacci told the story of how he found his agent. He had just finished writing Absolute Power and had sent it, unsolicited and in full to five agents (usually you only send 1-3 chapters for first go round). All five contacted him. He flew to New York and interviewed them all. He chose Aaron Priest of the Priest Agency because of the rapport he felt with him.
Next time we’ll delve into the world of publishers -- big and small -- and whether you want to brave one of the big seven houses in New York or find a smaller publisher for your novel.
Victoria B. Rosendahl is a freelance copywriter, published novelist and book editor. Her newest novel, Bitter Tastes, is a mystery for ages 8-12 published by Canadian publisher Stargazer Press (http://www.stargazerpress.com). To order your autographed first edition of Bitter Tastes, go to http://www.vbrosendahl.com Victoria will appear with Donna Doyle and Beth Erickson at their seminar entitled “The Business of Successful Freelance Writing” in Wilmington, Delaware on May 5, 2007. Visit http://www.3chix.com for more information and reserve your seat.
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