By Hugh Gilmore
April 29, 2009. The most recent installment of this "writing a Novel" series ended thusly:
"In the movies, the aspiring author sends his book off to the publishing company in the morning and waits for the afternoon mail. "Dear Mr. Doubleday," right?
My real education as a writer of novels was just beginning. Any dolt can write a book. Getting it published is a whole other story."
Well, Mr. Doubleday is no longer answering his mail. Nor are Mr. Scribner, Mr. Houghton, or Mr. Harcourt. Most of the publishing companies are owned by huge foreign conglomerates that also make sponges and ball bearings while broadcasting Hollywood gossip television programming.
They still publish books, but they do not have time to read all the books that would be submitted to them if they allowed people to submit books to them. Manuscripts sent directly to publishing houses are either trashed immediately or dumped in an abandoned room in a heap that is called "the slush pile" by the industry. Imagine, all those voices crying to be heard beneath the plain brown wrappers, so carefully tied with string and neatly addressed.
What the editors and publishers do instead is let another sub-industry wade through the wall of manuscripts that surges in with each change of tides. I'm speaking of literary agents. These people are the primary gatekeepers who influence what manuscripts get seen and considered for purchase by the publishing world. (There are others who can get an editor to look at your writing: another editor, a respected writer who knows your work, your writing teacher at a major writing program, your uncle Louie in accounting, maybe even the lady who comes in at night and empties the office waste baskets, but today's discussion centers on agents.)
An agent is, in theory, a person with good taste in literature who also has an eye for the publishing market. Very importantly, the agent has inroads with a number of editors and publishers. You could Google the names of publishing house editors yourself and come up with a list longer than the Monongahela River, but they won't talk to you if you call them. But an agent with a hot manuscript in her or his hand can tap the speed dial and get through to just the perfect editor for your book, someone who loves your kind of book, or at least thinks it's the type of book that might sell well in today's market.
If so, your agent sells your book to that publishing house. The sales price is negotiated. Skillful, prestigious agents know how to get the best prices for their clients' work. The percent you'll get is negotiated (but is fairly standard for new authors). If the book gets translated and published in another country, if the book is made into a movie, a television show, or a cereal box mini-novel, your agent negotiates those deals for you too.
In theory — or folklore, at least — your agent supports your work, believes in you, sometimes offers suggestions to improve your manuscript, lifts you up when you fall, gives you hope to carry on, and takes a mere 15 percent of what you make. That's a bargain. One of the last good deals on earth.
Okay, you say, that sounds good. I'll take one. Do they come in mauve? Could I have a good-looking one also? a kind of always-dress-in-black, New York-chic person who occasionally gets noted in the New York Times bold face celebrity news?
Then I found out that there are no agent stores at the mall. You can't just go in and contract for one, as you do for a cell phone. No, if the agent has never heard of you and no one has recommended you, you must apply to that agent and beg like a slumdog to be noticed.
And the begging must be done in a quite restricted, highly regulated form known as a "query letter." Oh what holy horror those words raise in my heart. Read any of the many books or websites devoted to finding an agent and you'll find advice and directions, often contradictory, for how to write a query letter to an agent.
After a year or two or three of writing, rewriting, revising, thinking, despairing, hoping, and rewriting some more, you finish a novel. Now you must write a letter to an agent seeking representation. The letter should be one page long (though you may single space). You must say: (1) What is it about that's agent's career, interests, and track-record that made you write to her/him; (2) Offer a three-sentence synopsis of your 300-page novel; (3) Reveal your marketing plan; (4) Describe your career, especially any writing awards you've won.
I felt I'd swallowed a fat stone that would take a long time to digest when I learned those criteria. And I really started sweating when I learned that agents reject 90 percent of the queries sent them. Then, of the 10 percent they ask for samples from, they reject 95 percent of them. Is that what this comes down to, I wondered? after thousands of hours of writing and dreaming, my fate depends on how well I write a one-page letter? A sales pitch?
"Reality is always therapeutic," my friend, Tom Rosica, used to say. If this is the way they do things up there in New York, who am I to naysay? I spent three intense weeks writing that simple letter.
And this week I took a deep breath and sent that query to six different agents. And guess what? By Friday, I'd already heard back from one of the biggest, busiest agents in New York, Daniel Lazar!
Unfortunately the answer was: "We’re afraid your project does not seem right for our list, but thank you for thinking of Dan, and best of luck in your search for representation."
But I was heartened to know that the canyon echoes when you shout into it. I'll send one a day for a year.
More to follow...