Thursday, June 14, 2012

So you found an agent? Yay! Welcome to hell.

So, you’ve found an agent! Good job! Stop reading now, and come back when the euphoria passes.
[Author’s note: As with much of what I have to say about publishing, please bear in mind that at this point my sample size = 1. This means that my experience could ultimately resemble yours, but it could also be wildly different. With any luck, you’re the next Stephanie Meyer.]
Hey, welcome back! Okay, now that you’ve come back to earth, you’ve probably figured out that while finding an agent is quite an accomplishment (not to mention a necessary first step), it isn’t the end of the road; in fact, it’s just the start, and the agony of waiting is about to get much, much  worse. Not only are you contemplating the prospect of getting published, you might even be paid for it!
Remember when you said, “I’m not writing for the money.”? Well, now you are, and unless you are made of sterner (or more ascetic) stuff than I, the dollar signs will start dancing before your eyes very soon. (For awesome blog posts about advances, go here and here.)
The process of finding a publisher can move at the speed of light, or at a glacial pace. The catch is that even when things move at the speed of light, they feel glacial. The time between when your agent sends your book to editors and you finally hear from them is going to be one of the longest you’ve ever experienced. You will come to think of hours as days, and days as months. Your average weekend will last an eon.
Once your agent gets your manuscript, she will send it out to editors. There are different schools of thought on how widely to send a manuscript. If an agent is not entirely sure that the book will sell, she might test the waters by sending it to a few publishers to see what they say. The thinking here is that if everyone comes back with a resounding “Not just no, but Hell No!”, you can revise the book and resubmit elsewhere.
The worst fate that can befall your book at this point is for your agent to submit a book that is not yet ready to lots of publishers; if the book doesn’t sell you you’ll have burned a lot of bridges. Be sure to talk with your agent about the number and kind of presses where she will send your work, and ask her to explain why she is using that strategy. In my case, Josh thought my MS was more or less ready to go, and sent it to about a dozen presses in all.
Once your agent sends out the MS, the best thing you can do (other than go for a long trip away from any sort of communication device, to include carrier pigeons) is try to manage your expectations. While amounts a press will offer vary, they tend to be pretty low (or at least lower then you probably want!) for first time authors.
If my experience is typical (again, keep the sample size in mind), your agent will send your MS to editors who like the kind of fiction you write, and as a result you will receive a lot of positive feedback right off the bat. If an editor loves your book, he will “get additional reads” from other editors and then take it to the editorial/acquisitions board. The editors goal is to build a wave of support behind the book even before the board meets. Cue the dancing dollar signs.
Here is where the trouble starts. Publishers are risk-averse these days, and many of these secondary readers will look for reasons not to publish your book. To make matters worse, the process is incredibly subjective, so virtually any reason to reject a book is good enough. Among the reasons I received were:
  • Set too far in the past. Readers want their historical fiction more recent than the 1600s. Yes, tell that to Hilary Mantel.
  • The suits up in marketing couldn’t decide if it was a mystery or women’s fiction.
  • Too much mystery, not enough midwifery.
  • Too much midwifery, not enough mystery.
  • Too commercial.
  • Not commercial enough.

(Yes, for every editor who thought there was too much [fill in the blank] there was another who thought there was too little. That’s the nature of the beast.)

The point is that the initial interest is not necessarily indicative of a forthcoming offer to buy the book.

But once you receive that offer, the fun begins, because – the waiting isn’t over.

Sam Thomas is the author of The Midwife's Tale coming soon from Minotaur/St.Martin's. You can learn more at his website, like him on Facebook (or in a coffee shop if you run into him there), and follow him on Twitter.


  1. Thankyou Sam

    You've just stated my reasons for not going through the whole heartache process of Agent to publisher to rejection. This is why I do assisted publishing - so it costs, but what price can you put on your piece of mind?

    Paula Lofting, author of soon to be released Sons of the Wolf

  2. Great post Sam! SO glad I got REALLY lucky. First editor happened to be editor-in-chief and bought it three weeks after requesting. :)