Wednesday, February 3, 2010

On the Road to Royalties, Part One

Quite often would be writers think about the writing process and the joys of completing a manuscript -- without thinking too much about the process that follows that finish. I’m sure most of them have heard the dreary and depressing term “rejection slip,” and some may even have heard that an author can collect quite a few of them on their way to getting published. But how does a budding author get in line to receive his or her very own rejection slip?

The process begins in the hunt for an agent. An agent represents book manuscripts to publishers, and negotiates book contracts on behalf of the author. For this he or she takes a percentage of the author’s earnings off the top. In fact, checks from the author’s publisher go to the agent, payable to the agent, who then writes another check, less the agent’s fee, to the author. The usual fee nowadays is fifteen percent. A good agent is worth the money. Book manuscripts that arrive at a publisher “unrepresented” -- without an agent -- go into a “slush pile,” where any editor may select one to read. If the editor likes light and cozy mysteries and finds herself reading a slash and burn thriller or grim noir, the manuscript will garner a rejection slip. A good agent will steer a book manuscript to an editor likely to feel friendly toward it.

How to get an agent? There are several ways. One is to find a friendly author willing to recommend the pre-published author to his or her own agent. Another way is to come to a convention of authors and prove yourself very friendly and helpful and willing to listen to any recommendations. Another way is to look into a copy of Writers Market, either by buying one in the reference section of a bookstore or seeking one out in the reference section of your public library. Writers Market has pages of agents, with a few sentences about each one. Pick one or two or three that seem appropriate, and write a two-page letter. The first paragraph should describe yourself and mention anything you have had published, ever. The rest of the letter should describe your book. Yes, give away the ending. Conclude by asking if the agent would be interested in seeing the manuscript. You can write multiple letters, but if you get three replies asking to see the manuscript (O happy day!), send to only one. If that one turns you down, send to the next one, and so forth. Spend a lot of time on that letter, it is tremendously important.

It is much easier to persuade a small publisher to put your book out on the market than a big one -- and they are kinder to unrepresented authors. But there is a lack of prestige to many small publishers and, worse, many do not have the good editors and strong distribution powers of the big ones. Your wonderful book may end up full of typos and relegated to a few local bookstores. Equally bad, you may find the contract you signed did not cover all the bases.

You may elect to self-publish, and there is a strong and growing set of publishers who might do a good job. But like the man who represents himself in court has a fool for a client, there is a real danger that the author who self publishes redoubles the chances of missing typographical errors and may miss having a new and experienced eye looking over the manuscript for plot errors, overwriting, overwrought scenes, extraneous events that slow the story, etc., etc., etc., etc. Like a good agent, a good editor is worth her weight in gold.

But suppose you overcome all the barriers, you got a good agent, a fine editor, and you even like the cover! Your book is about to hit the bookstores.

Next: Now what?

8 comments:

Elizabeth Spann Craig/Riley Adams said...

Good post! I've tweeted this one...

Elizabeth
Mystery Writing is Murder
Mystery Lovers’ Kitchen

Linda O. Johnston said...

What an excellent description, Monica, of the beginning of a process that can be challenging--yet definitely rewarding in many ways. Everyone reading this who wants to be published someday, but isn't yet, should take note! Looking forward to the next installment.

Monica Ferris said...

I agree heartily about the many joys of writing, from getting that great idea to watching it form well on paper to finishing it to finding a good agent -- every stage is a triumph worth celebrating!

signlady217 said...

Great information. Thanks for sharing.

Betty Hechtman said...

Well done post. You gave good reasons for a pre published author to find an agent. The points you made about small publishers and self publishing were right on.

Joanna Campbell Slan said...

Gosh, Monica, I wish I'd read this when I started out. You are so right: conferences and conventions are a great spot to meet an agent. Also, no one tells you when you are a newbie that a bad agent is worse than no agent at all! It's just after you've been in the business that you hear the horror stories, and you realize how bad representation can be a real problem. Great post.

Monica Ferris said...

Joanna, you made an excellent point. I had to fire an agent and, after the hard struggle just to acquire one, that was one of the hardest things I've ever had to do. But it was necessary and a good move.

Joanna Campbell Slan said...

Yes, Monica, no one really talks about it, but it's a part of the business. And it wasn't easy and it still isn't (because you forget when you sign the contract that your relationship will continue as long as some of your books are in print). But, it was the right thing to do.