Sunday, December 9, 2012

Literary Agents: Call Me, Maybe?

In your path is a solid cement wall, eight feet high and two feet across. If you can get over it, you are faced with an iron fence whose top is festooned with barbed wire. Beyond that is a swamp with quicksand and alligators. If you make it through the swamp you will face a mine field. [I thought about adding dragons but it might take you out of the reading moment.] Then, if you manage to get over, around, or through these obstacles, you come upon a huge and impressive portal. You ring the doorbell, but unbeknownst to you, the bell is not working. 

Sound like a video game? Actually, it is a pretty accurate analogy of how easy it is to get a contract from a traditional book publisher for your first novel.

In the publishing field the "traditional publishers" are known as The Big Six. They consist of Penguin Group, Hachette Book Group, Harper Collins, MacMillan, Random House, Penguin Group and Simon & Schuster. Each of these may have smaller presses called imprints. For example, Penguin has fifty imprints, including Riverhead Books, Dutton, G.P. Putnam's Sons, and 47 others. 

The "over the transom," sensational, writer's first manuscript--a publisher's dream found on the floor the next morning  is--a myth. Before a writer can even talk to a publisher she has to have a literary agent. Three exceptions to this rule exist: (1) no matter your ability to write standard English, if you are a celebrity with 3.2 million Twitter followers or (2) if you have a friend who owns a publishing company or (3) if you know an author who is published and will recommend you to her agent. 

Back to the cement wall.

A similar analogy about how easy it is to get published might be the biblical verse about how easy it is for the rich man to enter heaven. Camel? Eye of a needle? Sound familiar?

Here are some statistics gathered by Dan Poynter, a publisher, author and book consultant. 132 million manuscripts are submitted yearly. Of those, 1% will get published. For manuscripts that manage to get through the initial publisher's slush pile, 90% will be rejected after the first page is read. 98% will be rejected after the first chapter is read. 30-50 will get through the reading to become manuscripts that are seriously considered for publishing. 3,000 manuscripts are published daily by various means. Of those published, only 2% will sell more than 5,000 copies. 

A more concrete example would be the book, The Help, by Kathryn Stockett. More magazine published an article about her rejections. You can read the amazing story here. She wrote the novel over five years, was rejected 60 times over the next 3.5 years, and finally found a literary agent willing to go to bat for her. The rest, as they say, is history. Doesn't it make you wonder how many wonderful books go unpublished?

Just like those political ads prior to the elections, doesn't it seem like we might find a better way to do this, both in elections and publishing decisions?

If a writer wants a traditional publisher, she must first find an agent who will make pitches about her book to the traditional publishers. How does she get an agent? She does lots and lots of research. Most literary agencies have online websites and their websites make clear the various genres their agents are seeking. They also explain what the writer should submit if her book matches their interests. Each agent wants different emailed pieces of writing and some want only snail mail. The writer will send a query letter that is written in a specific format explaining her title, number of words, genre, VERY basic plot, publishing experience, and contact information. All of this should take up one page.

In addition, some agents want a one-page synopsis of the plot. Others want a 500-word synopsis. Still others want 3-5 pages, double-spaced. Some want attachments and others want copy and paste into the email. One chapter, three chapters, 30 pages, or 50 pages--each wants something a little different.

Most of their websites state very clearly that no matter how wonderful your manuscript may be, and no matter how many hours, months, or years of your life have gone into your baby, if you do not follow their instructions to the letter your baby will be deleted on sight. Some agents give you a window when you might expect a reply--anywhere from two weeks to six months--and others say you will only hear from them if they are interested. Do not call them. They might call you. Call me, maybe? [refer to statistics above for the answer to that one.]

People know that I've finished my first novel, had it edited, rewritten parts of it, re-edited, and it's ready to go. They have asked when they will be able to read it. I hope this post explains the answer to that question. Currently, I'm sending queries to agents. GPS would probably put me a few feet up the cement wall.

Tuesday, December 4, 2012

Thoughts Upon Writing a Book

It has been two years since I finished writing and subsequently published The Education of a Teacher (Including Dirty Books and Pointed Looks.) At the time it seemed like a gargantuan effort, especially since I began it in 2004.  But little by little, word by word, sentence by sentence, it trickled out of my head and onto the page.

Since that day wonderful things have happened because of the publication of my memoir. I have spoken at the national convention of the National Council of Teachers of English and the 2012 fall conference of the Illinois Association of Teachers of English. I've also presented at a number of colleges and universities to groups of students who are thinking about teaching. I envy them at the very beginning of their careers.

The book has brought former students and colleagues into my life again, some in person and other by email, mail, and phone. Not only did I speak with many of them as I wrote the book, but I also was contacted by others who heard about it and decided they wanted to read it.

Rarely are we offered a glimpse of what our lives have meant--unless we are Jimmy Stewart--but sometimes we do get to see through a tiny crack in the door back to the past. I am humbled and grateful for the many comments by those readers and also their reflective, interesting, funny stories that I didn't know.

To be able to recreate a time and place with people who shared them is a special blessing.

Two of my favorite authors, Emerson and Thoreau, often wrote that winter is a time of reflection, a time to let the smoke go up the chimney and sit down with a good book or even one's own thoughts.  So as I head into this winter season I will take their advice and count my blessings, good friends, and the many times my life has been ordered and enriched with special people whom I called "students," and whose current friendship and trust I respect and cherish.

Blessings to all my blog and book readers during this special season.