Fellow Australian author Graham Storrs recently got lucky. He sold his novel TimeSplash to US publisher Lyrical Press. Graham’s message is that you shouldn’t overlook small press or ePublishers, and that your quest for publishing should cover a range of possibilities. Here’s Graham’s story:
I read a lot of websites that describe in detail how to go about the business of getting your book published. Since most publishers these days will not read unsolicited manuscripts, the approved method is to approach an agent first. Once you have an agent, they will send your manuscript to publishers and find one who likes your work. There are whole websites devoted to the job of landing an agent, where to look to find ones which represent your kind of novel, and how to approach them by means of the dreaded ‘query letter’. While there are broad rules about how to construct a query letter, and how to write a synopsis of your work, and so on, each and every agent has their own peculiar preferences as to form and content, and you need to read their website carefully (if they have one) to find out what their preferences might be.
It all sounds fairly straightforward, if a little indirect and rule-bound. There are two basic problems with the process, however. Firstly, there are not enough agents to go around, they’re busy as hell, swamped with queries, and each only able to handle a fairly small number of clients. Secondly, no published author I have ever met, has achieved publication through this process. I’m not saying it doesn’t happen – it must, I suppose, and often – it’s just that I’ve never encountered it. People I know who have published novels have either had an inside track to an agent or a publisher (because they were already writing non-fiction, say) or they have been noticed by publishers because their work has appeared online (on sites like authonomy.com, for instance), or because they broke the rules and went straight to publishers, bypassing the agent stage.
I have just landed my very first book deal. This is how it happened. I wrote a book, just for fun. Then, from an acquaintance, I heard that a major publisher was running a competition for people to submit unpublished manuscripts, the prize would be a ‘retreat’ – a few days closeted away with the publisher and others in the industry to discuss the MS and other topics related to publication. If the publisher liked it, it was hinted, there may be a contract in it. Well, I won the trip away, got the feedback, re-wrote according to the publisher’s suggestions, and they still didn’t want to publish it. While I was waiting for their verdict, I wrote another book, called ‘TimeSplash’, also just for fun. I sent this to the publisher and they didn’t want that one, either.
But the retreat had taught me a lot about what publishers and agents want. It laid out the process I’ve described above. It told me where to look for information. It introduced me to the art of query letter writing. So I produced a query letter and a range of synopses of various lengths and I began approaching agents. I tried the Australian ones first (the vast majority don’t handle sci-fi, the one or two remaining were either not accepting new clients, or didn’t ‘love’ the book. Did I mention that agents have to ‘love’ your book before they are interested in representing it?) So I started on US agents and UK agents. A few of these had sufficient interest to ask for ‘partials’ – a synopsis plus a few chapters – and a couple even asked for the full manuscript. But none, in the end, ‘loved’ it enough. Yet I was determined to do this properly and not approach publishers until I had an agent. If you scattershot dozens of publishers, they all reject you, and then you land an agent, whoever it is is going to have a very hard time selling your manuscript.
But then an acquaintance from an online writing group I belong to, mentioned that a publisher in New York was actually asking for manuscripts in the genre/sub-genre my novel is in. I looked at the publisher’s website and it seemed to be an excellent fit. They are a small press publisher so I thought it wouldn’t upset a future agent too much if I sent off my MS to just one, teensy little publisher they might not even be aware of anyway. So I did, and forgot about it, focused as I was on landing that agent. Until the email came saying they’d like to offer me a contract.
So what are the lessons for an unpublished writer? I think it amounts to this:
Network. Join writers’ groups. Start a blog. Twitter. Find other writers, editors, publishers and agents to talk to. No-one in your network of industry contacts is likely to offer you a contract but that network represents dozens or hundreds of eyes and ears all tuned to what opportunities there are in the publishing world. Without such contacts I would never have heard about the unpublished manuscript competition that taught me so much about the business, and I would never have heard about this publisher who just happened to want exactly what I’d written. I’m probably even more shy, bashful and reclusive than you are. If I can do it, so can you.
Practice your art. Be as good as you can. Keep writing, no matter what. When opportunity knocks, you will need a bloody good book, ready to be handed over to the agent or publisher who wants to see it. All the lucky breaks in the world won’t help you if your writing is no good and you don’t have finished, polished work, ready to go.
Follow the process. Read the agent and editor websites (however pompous some of them might sound!) It’s still probably the best way to get into print. But bear in mind that writers – even really good writers – need a huge amount of luck to find an agent or a publisher. So do what you can to make sure you are the one that lightning strikes. Network, practice your art, and to hell with the rules when you finally spot that opportunity.
You can read Graham’s blog at http://grahamstorrs.cantalibre.com/