Saturday, March 25, 2006

Need an agent for your book?

"I can't find an agent!" shouts the frustrated writer.

My response: "Where have you looked?"

If you're looking for an agent, don't google "literary agents." Any agent that advertises is not an agent you want.

If you followed the advice of my last post, you learned that you must educate yourself on the publishing industry before seeking publication for your manuscript. I understand that in your eyes and your family's and neighbors' that your book is the best book ever written. It's gonna blow away J.K. Rowling. It'll make a great movie. It'll be a hit in Oprah's book club.

Many authors have dreams like these, but also have realistic expectations.

There's no way any of that's going to happen if you don't do your homework. You want an agent? It's not easy nor will it happen overnight. Months will pass and you will receive many rejections. But if you want it bad enough, this is what you must do:

I draw your attention back to 2006 Writer's Market available at bookstores and libraries. They also have an online version. Read the informative articles. Browse the agent listings. Choose those who deal with the kind of story you have written.

Visit the website agentquery. Read their articles. Go through their database and start picking out appropriate agents. Visit all of their websites. All of them. Make sure they are currently accepting query letters. See which method they prefer: some like email, some like snailmail. Follow their instructions.

Also visit your local library and go through Literary Marketplace, which is a listing of thousands of agents and publishers. Find the ones who represent what you've written.

You will also note that many of them say "Always looking for new talent." This means that yes, they are seeking unpublished authors. Agents want to sign the next big author. Agents want bestsellers to add to their lists of successes. Some aspiring authors just don't seem to understand this.

Some agents will say "no unsolicited manuscripts." This means they must ask for the manuscript first. The only way they will ask for the manuscript is if you query first. Writers Market, agentquery, and numerous websites offer advice on writing queries. Once you've written your query, ask for help in the Share Your Work forum on absolutewrite or other writer's sites to make it the best query letter it can be.

By now you've begun a list of likely agents. Cross check each one with Preditors and Editors. Learn the difference between a good agent and bad agent. The quickest way to know is if they ask for any money: money for making copies, money for editing, money for representation are all red flags. I should point out that some reputable agencies have started charging very small amounts for copies, but these are few and far between. A normal agent will deduct all expenses from your royalty check. And part of an agent's job is to secure the best deal he can for the author.

Personalize each query as best you can based on the agent's history and list of books represented. Don't get chummy, of course, but you need to tailor your query to fit the agent.

Now,start submitting. It is recommended that you include the first two or three pages of your manuscript with your query, unless the agent's guidelines say not to.

Always include an SASE with your snailmail. In email queries, never send attachments. Instead, include any sample pages in the body of the email.

Email response time could be several hours to several weeks. Snailmail responses range from a week to two months or longer.

Don't be surprised or disheartened when you get rejected. It's a numbers game. Submitting query letters is like a direct mail campaign. 19 out of 20 can and will get rejected, but rejection is part of the process. Every week, send out ten or more queries; more if you can. When an agent asks to see the whole manuscript, celebrate briefly, but understand that it can still get rejected.

Many authors who successfully landed an agent have reported sending over a hundred queries before finding one that finally said "yes." You just have to be persistent and it will happen. It might take months but the end result will be worth the time.

When an agent finally agrees to take on your work, you likely be notified by telephone.

On the other hand, if you've received two hundred or more rejections, it could mean that your work is not ready to be published. It happens. If you're lucky, you may receive feedback on your query letter, sample pages, or full requests from the agencies. Always take their comments to heart. If twenty agents say "good story, poor pacing," then your manuscript might need some more work.

I strongly recommend reading blogs written by real agents for an insight to how they think. This can be a real eye-opening experience, but you'll learn a lot.

Miss Snark

Kristin Nelson

And that's the secret! Really wasn't a secret, was it?

See you in the bookstores.

On writing, agents, and publishers

I've read a lot of blogs and message board posts by writers who seem to believe that publishers and agents will not consider unpublished authors. That there is some sort of Grand Conspiracy against new authors preventing them from sharing future shelf space with the likes of Tom Clancy, John Grisham, and Stephen King. That the only way to get noticed in the industry is to get printed by vanity presses like publishamerica or authorhouse.

What amazes me is that this logic suggests that no author has ever been unpublished. I mean, walk into any bookstore and look around. All those books were written by people who at one pont had never been published. But these authors didn't get their books in the store by magic. Most had worked for years perfecting their craft before they got published. And in many cases, the authors' first books were never published. The ones that made it into the bookstore were second, third, or even fourth attempts.

This is a reality that many first-time authors are afraid to face: that their first book may not ever get published.

The web has changed the way some aspiring authors view the publishing industry. It is common now for a writer who has just finished his masterpiece to jump onto google, type in "book publisher" and send his manuscript to the first one on the list. A year later he wonders why his books aren't stocked in stores like those of his favorite authors and why his royalty checks are less than $5. Soon he gives up, declaring himself a literary failure and never writes again.

Was his book something thousands of readers would have enjoyed? Nobody will ever know.

If you write a book and are serious about getting it published, educate yourself before you send it anywhere. Back in the "good ol' days" before there was an internet, I checked out books on writing and publishing from my high school library. I had already started writing at this point and I wanted to understand the mechanics of writing and how the publishing industry worked. I knew I was writing . . . crap . . . but I was also learning that the road to publishing was filled with potholes, and that authors had to work very hard to get published. I learned there were no shortcuts to getting a book into bookstores.

The first book I bought on writing was in 1991: How to Write and Sell Your First Novel by Oscar Collier. While this isn't a book on writing mechanics, it does give a great overview of the processes of writing a novel, dialog, story, plot, and characters; rewriting, editing, polishing; publishers, agents, and success stories of first-time novelists. This book provided a roadmap for me and helped me understand what I needed to do to get published. There are many other books on writing and publishing, just browse your library or bookstore for more. I also recommend Stephen King's On Writing which is part autobiographical and part how-to. It's a must-read for every author. And if you've finished a manuscript, you absolutely have to get Self Editing for Fiction Writers. It's required reading for all writers. Finally, use 2006 Writer's Market for a printed guide to finding publishers and agents.

But, as an author who just finished your manuscript, you may ask "Why? Why should I read all those things? I'm already an expert; I know how to write, my book is perfect."

Maybe it is, maybe it isn't. As an author, though, you never stop learning how to perfect your craft. The best way to do this is to keep reading. Read the how-to books. Read new fiction. Observe how successful novelists write their books. Also interact with other authors on message boards like Absolute Write. Ask questions and share samples of your writing.

You will open up a whole new world for yourself if you reach out to other successful authors.

More about agents and publishers in my next post.

Wednesday, March 22, 2006

Allen's new blog

My first post in my very own blog.

Is it good so far?

Still reading?

You can't surf five different sites these days without stumbling across someone's blog. Some blogs are simply online diaries. Some are filled with useful information on particular topics akin to the blogger's interests.

I have a variety of interests. I'm also an author. I believe I'll be posting whatever I feel like posting about that day, whether it's about antique radios or the fate of the subway in Cincinnati.

I've written three books, all published by Arcadia Publishing: The Cincinnati Subway, Cincinnati on the Go, and Stepping Out in Cincinnati.

Am I an author, or am I just nuts about Cincinnati? Both, actually.

I wrote Subway in 1998 at a time when I was an aspiring author looking for a full-length project. I had already had a few articles published in Radio World magazine and had attempted fiction, but I had a lot to learn about telling a good story among other things. When I saw a TV news feature about the subway in late 1997 (Cincinnati TV news periodically mentions the subway to remind us there is one still there) I wanted to learn more about it. I figured there had to be a book about it, but there wasn't. There was nothing on the web about it (remember, this was 1997). The more I asked around about it, the more people told me it was a story that had to be told.

So I took it upon myself to write the book. I wasn't a traffic engineer, librarian, or railroad historian. Just a guy who wanted to tell a true story about a hole in the ground.

I was working a full-time job. It took about nine months to research, write, and revise the first drafts of the manuscript. I consulted numerous books about Cincinnati history, City-commissioned reports from the 1910s and 1920s, hundreds of newspaper articles about the subway, and spoke with a great variety of people about it. Every new piece of info I found went into the book. Then I spent more months rewriting and revising. In the end, the word count was 55,000 and I had collected about 200 images to illustrate the book.

I had several goals in writing the manuscript I wanted to accomplish:

  • Write about more than just the story of the subway. I wanted to cover local history as well, and how other factors influenced the need for the subway and its outcome: automobiles, interurban trains, streetcars, the two world wars, and the Depression.
  • Write the book in a conversational style, geared for the "every reader." I don't know how many books I consulted written by authors who wrote at several levels higher than the average reader, using long, multi-syllabic words and complex sentences. My book would appeal to anyone.
  • I wanted to write it so it wasn't biased one way or another; I tried to take a neutral stance throughout and just tell the story. If a transportation engineer had written the book, it might have come across differently than how I handled it.

During this time I was reading up on writing and publishing, and started querying history and university presses. None were interested. "Too narrow a topic" was what I most often heard. 1998 became 1999 and personal obligations forced me to set aside the manuscript.

In 2000 my wife and I bought our house. I spent the next few months performing various house projects, but throughout this time, the subway manuscript never left my mind. People would sometimes ask, "Get your book published yet?" and I would have to hang my head and say "no, it's on hold right now."

I had been visiting a website called Forgotton Ohio, run by an "urban explorer" who visited abandoned buildings and other locations around Ohio and featured them on his site. In 2002 I saw that he had written a book called Forgotten Columbus published by Arcadia and had it displayed on his site. I thought his subject matter was similar to mine, so I contacted the publisher and told them about Subway. They expressed an interest and asked for the manuscript. Soon they asked for a proposal. I wrote the proposal, and was then offered a contract.

Was I happy? Oh, yes.

Then the work began, again.

55,000 words was too long for an Arcadia book. I had to cut it down by at least half. The editor gave me a lot of help, and suggested moving chunks of text to the captions. I spent three solid months editing every evening and every weekend. I had to cut thousands of words. Although this was a time-consuming process, and not at all unusual in the publishing world, it did give me a chance to revisit the manuscript after the years had passed to find problems I had missed the first times I went through it. I also tightened up the text a lot, as well as deleted everything unnecessary. In the end, the manuscript was better than ever.

The Cincinnati Subway came out May, 2003 and sold out of the publisher in a month. They had to issue an immediate reprint. Since then, it's on printing number 5. I expect to see number 6 soon.

It still remains one of Arcadia's continuously best sellers.

In later blog posts I'll talk about my next two books.

I am moving past local history. I have covered the topics I wanted to cover with my three books and am now delving into fiction. I wrote my first children's book (historical fiction on a passenger train in 1895--yeah, history again!) and it is being submitted to agencies right now. So far, 38 agencies have been queried. 12 rejects.

In other news, my cousin Nathan Singer's second book Chasing the Wolf has been released. Check your local bookstore or and pick one up today while you browse for my three titles. Also, look for the recently released The Pacific Between by an author friend of mine, Raymond Wong.