Getting A Book Sold

 

For many writers at the start of the I-Want-To-Get-Trade-Published journey, there’s the belief that there’s only one really big, obstacle-ridden, steeple-chase laden, struggle, and that’s getting the literary agent. And if you get that literary agent, or, you decide to dispense with trade publishing entirely, and go self-publishing, then everything else is easy street, and the success will come with the inevitability an anvil dropped in a high gravity planet.

These beliefs are horribly, horribly wrong.

What actually happens is, you have a literary agent! Whee! You are over a hump, but you are not over the hump. And there may yet still be several ahead of you. A literary agent is both your creative advocate and career advisor, but more important than anything else, a literary agent is your direct connection to acquiring editors with different publishers. In other words, all those book-buyers that wouldn’t give you the time of day before? They’ll give it to your agent.

They will pick up the phone when your agent calls, write back cheery, social emails when your agent writes in, or even sit down for lunch in some New York restaurant or bistro if you’ve got the kind of agent that does the lunch thing. If you’re lucky, your agent will have already established a relationship with an acquiring editor, where they both know that the agent’s taste often lines up with what the editor wants to buy.

For writers at this stage, this means that there’s another roll of the dice in the offing.

Prepping For Submission

Once an agent has decided to represent you and your book, this means that you’re about to go on submission. Depending on the way an agent works and depending on the state of your novel, there might be a lot of prep work or only a little. The Chimera Code, to my surprise, didn’t require a lot of preparation. When my agent looked at it, she had no major editorial suggestions to make, other than making sure I had my pronouns lined up properly for the non-binary character of Zee. Otherwise, she liked the plot, liked my structure, had no issues with anything in the story and thought it was more or less ready to go. So I went on submission within a month of being signed on. This, by publishing standards, is actually pretty fast.

Other writers, however, might get very detailed editorial notes. An agent might be super-detailed about the kinds of changes to be made; you might actually get your books back, or at least the MS Word file of it, with “Track Changes” enabled. When you open that file and see a sea of red comments everywhere, you may wonder why your agent signed you in the first place if the book appears to be so problematic.

What’s important to remember that this point is that agents–and later on acquiring editors–are looking for diamonds in the rough. Every once in a while there will be some miraculous, statistical fluke where a novel may not need much in the way of fixing at all, but most of the time, at some stage, whether it’s with the agent, the editor, or both, you’re going to need to keep fixing that book, making it better.

In the case of The Chimera Code, I got very lucky for that first round, with only minimal tweaks. It wasn’t like that for the next novel. But it meant that my agent could read it quickly, and prepare to submit to acquiring editors for consideration, which can mean a lot of different things. Depending on the relationships that agents have with editors, approaching them for looking at a book can mean a lot of different things.

Sometimes it means sitting down to lunch and actually discussing it over food. Or it can mean a phone call, chatting away, sliding in book talk amongst the socializing. Still other times, it might just be an email, politely and professionally pitching the book and asking if there’s any interest in taking a further look. So basically, you query agents to get representation. Now your agent, in a sense, queries your book with editors.

The big difference here is that the pool is now much smaller. For me, in science fiction and fantasy, when I took a look at QueryTracker, I saw that for the adult SFF market, I had about 130+ agents to query. Once you get to the “agent round,” you’re now looking at editors from The Big Five, as your best-case scenario. The Big Five is the nickname most people have in the industry for the five biggest publishers; Penguin-Random House, Harper Collins, Simon & Schuster, Hachette and MacMillan. These are the ones you always see in the bookstores.

They’re not the only ones, just the biggest ones. There are smaller, “mid-list” publishers in every market category that regularly do a lot of good work, and put out novels nominated for–and even winning–awards, like Rebellion, NightShade, or Angry Robot. Even beyond those publishers are small presses that go for even more distinct, delightfully weird stuff.

In my situation, once I’d done the changes, I got a final look-over from my agent, she gave the thumbs up, and it was off to the races. Time to submit.

The Waiting Is Worse

One of the big things most people querying don’t realize until they get offered representation from an agent is that a lot of the casual, carefully cultivated detachment querying writers develop for that big list of agents no longer applies when a book is on submission to editors. Where before, if you got a form rejection, or the designated time for a non-responder meant, “Ah well, time for a revenge query” that was casually sent off to yet another agent, every rejection counts now. You don’t have over 100 publishers for your agent to send the book to. Depending on your market, you don’t even have 50, or even 30. Once you get five out of five rejections from the Big Five, there’s no second chance, not with them, not for that book.

So in exchange for having fewer people to submit to, every rejection counts far more than it did when you were querying! Whee!

No. Not whee. More like anxiety-induced, nauseous “Bleaaaaaargh…”

The way my agent, Jennie Goloboy at Donald Maass Literary worked, she prepared a short list of the candidates she wanted to consider for submission. This is very different querying, where the majority of the time, you don’t know the literary agent you’re querying. In all likelihood, the only things you know about them are what you can glean from Internet research. Successful agents, especially the ones that have been at it for a while, have established relationships with these editors.

They talk, they’ve done meals, they actually know what they like, so this is far from a “cold query” like what you did when you were searching for representation. This is more of a calculated, “Hey, remember that talk we had of how you wanted to see this kind of story? I think I’ve got something lined up that might check those boxes, so you want to take a look at it?”

There’s a lot more riding on this stage because this is it. This is–well maybe not entirely–the final gatekeeper, or at least, the person that will get back to your agent with a “yes” or a “no” about whether or not your book will appear on the bookshelves under their imprint one day. At this point, even more so than querying, it’s really all out of your hands. You don’t have the option of “tweaking a query” anymore if you’re not getting the responses you want because A) There is no query, and B) the pool of people to submit to is too small for that kind of response.

However, like with agents, acquiring editors are busy. SUPER busy. They are editing actual books that go into print, dealing with art and marketing teams. They’re negotiating with their higher-ups to buy more books for the next publishing year. So, just like with agents, this process can take some time. Hopefully not too much time.

My longest experience with waiting for a publisher to make a decision on a book was with my first literary agent. I waited three years for a “no” as a final answer. Possibly because of the trauma of that experience, with my second agent, I was well prepared to dig in for long bouts of zero progress that would last months, or even years. Having cultivated that patience was important because it came in very handy.

The Trickle Begins

For The Chimera Code, my agent was specific. She has solid relations with some editors, so she was able to get very specific, make an initial approach to eight publishers–including from The Big Five. She asked if any of those eight wanted to read the book. All of them said “yes.” So that was actually pretty promising, a 100% request rate. Unlike querying, there is absolutely nothing you can do at this point. You’re not even sending these things out yourself. You’ve done your job; everything is out of your hands.

So The Chimera Code went out, and all I could do was keep writing my other new books and wait.

The results can be somewhat consistent.

I’ve compared notes with other represented writers that also went on submission. There seems to be a general pattern for the “average” book submission. I’m not talking about the huge hits, where an editor goes absolutely mad for it. Then offers a six-figure advance, and it goes into a frenzied auction. That’s the 1% of the books that actually make it to the submission stage. While that’s going to be an almost unbeatable emotional high, and ego boost, most of us aren’t going to experience that. I sure didn’t.

Instead, what most people will get is a recurring pattern of fast rejections, followed by slower consideration. Even if your agent has good ties with an acquiring editor, there’s still no accounting for the individual taste. So despite being requested by the editor to read, you may–and probably will–still get some rejections at the outset. There will be some editors who know very quickly on that they are not responding to your book in a way that would make them want to argue and fight for it with the rest of a publishing team and insist that this needs to come out next year. Those editors will be the first ones to respond to a submission. I got my first wave of rejections inside of a month, from these editors.

Everyone else, however, is either very busy and doesn’t get around to it for a while. Or they’re receptive, but that takes more time to read and consider the book. This is the trickle. It’s drips and drops of either status reports indicating “still reading, haven’t reached a decision yet.” Or else, “I’ve thought about it and I can’t quite get behind this, but I’d love to see more.” In my case, the rejections were always kind, and many of them complimented the writing. They liked the pace, characters, and action sequences, even if other issues that ultimately made The Chimera Code a “no” for them.  This process went on for months.

The Next Round

In this case, The Chimera Code didn’t get any immediate takers with the first round of submissions. Not all of them had weighed in yet. That didn’t stop my agent from moving on to what I thought of as Round 1.5. It wasn’t a list of new editors, so much as a couple of others that might also be more receptive. My first book sat in the gallows waiting for a decision for over three years. I was used to this kind of waiting game. I could go for a round two, three and four if that was what it took.

Fortunately, that’s not what it took. My agent told me that she was getting whispers from one of the Round 1.5 submittees that things were promising. As cynical as it might sound, I’d heard that before too, so I didn’t really think much of it. Plenty of people had said nice things about my writing over the years and still said no. So I’d insulated myself from positive hints as nice, but ultimately meaningless. This time, I was as wrong as I could possibly be, and I couldn’t have been more happy about it.

It Is Liked. Enough To Buy, Even

11 months after The Chimera Code went on submission, I got an email from my agent. She had first pitched the book to editors at World Con in 2017. Now it was at World Con 2018 that she closed the circle. She got an offer from someone. That someone, of course, ended up being Solaris Books imprint of Rebellion Publishing, with my super editors the Formidable Kate Coe, and Stalwart David Thomas Moore presiding over the “What the hell, let’s buy it” decision. I went numb with disbelief. My wife cried.

So at long last, Chimera, now known officially as The Chimera Code completed a very long journey. It started as a teenager, stretched into decades of cranking out novels. It went from one turn with a literary agent that didn’t bear fruit. Then, finally, a new agent, and a book that was bought, complete with contract that needed signing and everything. Everyone’s journey to publication is different. Mine was meandering, roundabout, and pretty long. But it ended with a publisher who loves the book and its characters as much as I do. I hope someday soon, everyone will get a chance to meet them.

Photo by Jaredd Craig on Unsplash

The Obligatory “How I Got An Agent” Post

[SPOILER: It Wasn’t Quick Or Easy]

 

If you’re reading this now, you’re probably here because you saw an announcement on social media, or maybe just saw me ranting or commenting about something on a forum, or the aforementioned social media, or hey, maybe you even found me on Goodreads, in which case, you’re trying to find out more. One of the things I found useful during my process of trying to get published is the way others did it. Everyone is going to have a distinct road, though there are some similarities. Some will get an agent fast, experience quick publication success and generally enjoy a smooth journey. Others will walk on roads of broken glass, cross country, for several years. And, when publication arrives, just be thankful to be able to sit down. Maybe raise their feet and stop bleeding for a while, rather than think, “HOLY HELL, I DID IT! WHOO!”

The first step in getting published is getting a literary agent. Everything I’m discussing is about trade publishing, not indie/self-publishing which may be a better fit for some writers. Indie/self is not for me, but then I have no skill in marketing or promotion. I also harbored the dream of seeing my own books on a shelf in a bookstore someday. If that’s where your end goal is, then you want to go with trade publishing. And you’ll want a literary agent.

Deciding It’s Time

The biggest decision you have to make when it comes to getting a literary agent is first deciding whether or not you’re ready. It’s all well and good to want a literary agent to represent you, but you have to have something to show first, and it has to be something the agent believes can be sold to a publisher. I’m a Gen Xer, which basically means “Child of the 80s,” so there’s my admission that yeah, I’ve been at this for a while.

High school is when I gave much more thought to being a writer of fiction. But I viewed high school and university as “prep time”; just getting the learning and experiences I’d need to be a writer. My English teachers noticed the wonky stuff I wrote. That led to talks with a writer-in-residence, who pointed me towards a writer’s group for science fiction and fantasy, and even started taking creative writing classes in university. So I spent a few years just writing, talking with other writers, and absorbing as much as I could, while still reading.

Like most people, I started out with short stories first. I didn’t want to jump into something as monstrous a novel straight out of the gates, and short stories are perfect practice. You can still learn structure with short stories, but the length means you can quickly move onto new projects, and try very different things. After a few years of that, my first sale, a short story to On Spec magazine in Canada, made me think maybe I had a chance at doing this.

Several years had passed by this point. I’d gone through high school and university, had lived and worked in Thailand and was now living in Singapore. My first novel, which I had started writing in university on an Amiga, with WordPerfect, traveled the world with me on 3.5″ floppy disc. I didn’t yet have a computer of my own in Thailand, so I wrote it on an office computer at the place I worked. In Singapore, I finally bought my own laptop, while working in an ad agency, got back into the groove, finally finishing the novel. It was a monster; over 200,000 words in length, packed with every weird idea I’d ever come up with. It defied a lot of conventional wisdom for what was acceptable to a literary agent, but I figured “what the hell,” and started submitting anyway.

My Hopes Are Nurtured Rapidly

To my complete amazement, one of the first agents I queried to actually responded with wanting to see more. This was back in the 1990s, and querying back then isn’t what it is today. Services like QueryTracker didn’t exist yet, and email was only just starting to become really big as the standard form of querying. So when I got a request for a full, that meant, in 20th century terms, an actual print out.

When you’re living in Singapore, and a literary agent in the USA asks to see a full manuscript for something that’s over 200,000 words, there’s no way this is going to be cheap.

But I did it anyway, bringing the disc over to a professional printer near my office, seeing his eyes bulge when I told him I needed this huge file printed out, double-spaced, single-sided, so that I could mail it. Then I lugged that thing over to the nearest SingPost office, and waved my first, crazy, totally whacky novel goodbye. Weeks passed. The agent sent an email indicating he’d received it, and then he sat down to read it.

I still remember I was actually working very late in the office one night when I got the email–it must have been morning for him–saying he’d read it and he wanted to offer me representation. I was gobsmacked. My first novel, one of my first agent queries, and I’d already gotten an offer. I wasn’t even 30 yet, this was already shaping up to be a great, “And he defied the odds” success story!

My Hopes Are Crushed. Slowly

That, as you can see by the 2018 date of this blog entry, didn’t actually happen. I’m always going to be grateful to that first literary agent for taking a chance on something so unusual and weird. It was a big, rambling, horror/dark fantasy thing that was equal parts Neil Gaiman and J.M. DeMatteis, but I put everything that mattered to me at that time into the book. Maybe that’s what he resonated with.

However, the book didn’t sell. It took a long time for it to not sell. One of the Big Five publishers he submitted it to sat on the book for three years. They  finally said “No.” So I wrote another book. And another. Those didn’t sell either, although the comments were always the same. They liked the writing, but not quite what we’re looking for.  A lot of things happened; I met The One, fell in love, got married, and moved from Singapore back to Canada. But in all that time, no book sale.

We had tried. It was a good run. Maybe it was time to try something else.

Back In The Trenches

In 2007, I parted ways with that agent and started looking for representation again. I’d written three novels by this point, and had just finished a Middle-Grade novel for younger readers, just for fun, to see if I could even do it. By 2007, querying was a lot easier, and so much had changed in the landscape. Things like QueryTracker existed, and most agents now didn’t ask for a complete print out of a full request, they were totally okay with attached files! However, the sheer volume of queries being sent out was staggering. 21st-century agents dealt with an overwhelming flood compared to 10 years before.

I started by querying what I already had while writing new books. It got kind of crazy there for a while, with multiple books being queried to multiple agents. I wracked up a sizable list of near misses. The books got partial and full-requests from agents, but there was always something stopping them from offering me representation again. QueryTracker was essential for me during this phase, especially since I had multiple projects. So I bit the bullet and subscribed to the premium service, then held onto it for years. Believe me, if you’re as unorganized as I am, QueryTracker keeps you in check. A few more years passed, with querying and two more books written that also went into querying.

Staying in touch with the writing community in some fashion was important too. I joined and actively participated in the AbsoluteWrite Forums, something I still do to this day. I took writing classes, like attending the workshops of Brian Henry, and formed a small writing group with other SFF writers there to meet more regularly. I got help on my query and even attended events run by Chuck Sambucino, and though nothing arose from that, I somehow helped my wife to get an agent of her own this way. I also got developmental edits from editors I trusted like Jeff Seymour, to try and polish up my novels. I tried, and failed, repeatedly, to get selected as a mentee in PitchWars. All of this, over the years, resulted in slow, steady progress that continued to show improvement, but no breakthrough.

And Then The Breakthrough

I was, understandably, starting to feel a little discouraged. All these years, I had been able to make a decent living, full-time, as a writer for advertising, television, magazines, and even content provision for the Internet. But the one thing that kept eluding me after a quick start with my first agent, was a novel on a shelf. In 2016, I figured maybe I should give it one last shot. If that didn’t work, just relegate fiction to an occasional hobby, like playing video games, or reading my SFF novels. I’d chalk it up as a major life lesson learned.

If I was going to go out, I may as well go big. I had one concept that went all the way back in my college days. A crazy, whacked out idea about a cyberpunk world where magic had started to work. Then evolved into a future where fusion generators now co-existed uneasily alongside healing spells applied to cancer victims. I wrote a short story about it back in the 1990s, mulled the idea over for years, and always said to friends that “One of these days, I’m going to write that damn thing.”

So I did. If I was going to have a last book, I was at least going to get that one out of my system. So Cloke, Zee and all the rest finally got their chance in the sun. I wrote as best I could, got help with the edits from Jeff Seymour and my beta readers then put into the Query Grinding Machine. For months it was the usual. Requests for partials, even fulls, but nothing beyond that.

Then in February of 2017, I got a partial request from Jennie Goloboy off a query I’d sent in January. I didn’t invest much in the way of hope. She’d rejected me quite a few times over the years, but this was the first time she’d asked for a partial. I sent it off, and noticed that over the next few months, things were a bit different. There were requests, sure, but I was getting a lot of them, especially for fulls. By the time Jennie asked for a full in May, she was already in a crowded space. A lot of other agents asked for  fulls.

Then Jennie, who’d sent many polite form rejections over the last several years, wrote an e-mail asking if there was a good time for us to speak on the phone. I’d plugged away for so many years with so many near misses, personalized rejections and words of encouragement that I was “close.” Jennie changed everything when she said, “I’m offering you representation and I would like to try and get your book into print.”

Much hugging of cats and consumption of alcohol followed.

So the final stats on my journey to representation, round 2:

Total Books Written: 6

Total Queries Rejected For Book: 140

Total Lifetime Queries Rejected: 430+

Presidential Administrations Come & Gone: 3

You can take that a few ways. It’s a testament to the Power Of Not Giving Up. Or, an admission that some people are too stupid to know when to quit. Either way, the result is the same.

Next time: The Road To Publication

Photo by Brandi Redd on Unsplash