That wonderful day arrives–you’ve finished your first book. Your excitement level has reached a new high, and you can’t wait to revel in your success. Fame and fortune can only be moments away–nanoseconds in the fullness of time. You’re on the brink of greatness; the celebrity life is at hand. And boy oh boy, are you ready!
But–and nobody likes a but–it might be a good idea to chill for a minute or two before you put in your order for a floating mansion you can populate with your peeps. There might be a couple things to consider first. Yes, you’ve finished the writing, for now anyway, but there’s a whole lot more to this game than producing words, even really extraordinary words like yours. You still have to get it published.
Traditional or Independent?
There are really only two ways to get your book out into the world: you can do it yourself (or pay to have it done), or you can try to get someone to pay you for doing it. The latter approach is commonly called the “traditional” method in which the writer either finds an agent to represent them to the publishers, or the writer goes directly to the publishers on their own. Both strategies have worked, and writers have snagged some very handsome advances for their work.
If you are already well-known, like a celebrity, a politician, or an athlete, you’ll probably get away with announcing that you’ve written a book, and agents will come knocking on your door. The traditional route is clearly the best way to go for you. If you already have connections to people with some pull in the publishing business, your task will likewise be pretty simple. You pick up the phone, call your pal, and tell him or her your manuscript is ready.
But assuming you’re one of the “great unwashed” (Thank you, Edward Bulwer-Lytton), your options are limited. You can mail query letters to agents and editors, or you can arrange to meet them in person at writer’s conferences and/or fan conventions. Sometimes these encounters are planned events that you sign up for in advance, or they might be pure happenstance–like bumping into someone in an elevator, a restaurant, or a bar.
There’s a certain etiquette expected at these gatherings. It’s considered extremely bad form to interrupt an agent or an editor while they’re talking to someone else, eating, or trying to grab a moment’s rest. And never, ever, approach one in a public restroom unless they’re screaming for help. Think of them all as belonging to a huge private club, which isn’t too far from the truth. Most of them know each other, so if you stick your thumb in an editor’s Key Lime pie in an attempt to get his attention, word will spread very quickly, and your career as a published author will instantly be on a tour of the local sewer system.
However, if you’re patient and respectful, your chances will come. A prospective agent or editor will look you in the eye, smile, and ask you to tell him or her about your book. This is where you’ll need to deliver the much-ballyhooed “elevator pitch.” It got the name because back in the day, writers often tried to pitch their book in an actual elevator while the agent they’d hunted down was trapped and had to listen, at least for as long as the elevator ride lasted. That meant the writer had to pack all the pertinent details into a spiel lasting no more than thirty seconds. Shorter was better. Probably still is.
What goes into an elevator pitch? Pretty much the same stuff that goes in your back cover blurb. You remember those. We covered them here (in “I’ve Got A Great Idea For a Book”). The blurb, as you’ll recall, distills the essential elements of your story into a compact sentence or two designed to intrigue potential readers. Having that short, snappy one or two-liner tells the editor/agent a couple important things: you understand the importance of a short, snappy sales pitch, and you’re interested in publishing as a business, not a hobby. You didn’t attend the conference or convention merely to rub elbows with your buds, some of whom may be in the elevator with you, possibly in costume. Oh, and by the way, never pitch a book when you’re in costume, unless the agent/editor is, too.
What you’re hoping for from one of these contacts, and hopefully you’ll score more than just one, is an invitation to submit a manuscript, or a piece thereof. It means you’ve breached the outer wall of the publishing stronghold; you’ve made yourself known. You will clutch the business card said personage gave you, and you will treasure it as the rare key to the kingdom that it is. When you write the cover letter that goes with whatever you were asked to submit (nothing more, nothing less), you will remind the addressee of your encounter at the conference on such and such a date. In most cases, they will recall meeting you and will read your submission.
If, on the other hand, you choose to send out dozens, if not hundreds, of blind queries, your response rate will be abysmal. That’s normal. Most literary agencies don’t bother to respond unless they’re interested, and most of them never are. Your best bet in this strategy is to connect with agencies advertising for clients. The drawback here is that these probably aren’t the folks who’re going to take your book to the top. Yes, there are some agents just starting out who will eventually be stars, just as there are editors who will do the same. Understand, however, that they’re the exception, not the rule. But, you’ll never know unless you try.
Sometime soon we’ll take a look at doing all the work yourself. It’s really not that hard.