Saturday, October 10, 2009

The Hilarious Drudgery of Querying Agents

After I finished the first draft of Rising Shadow last year, I embarked on the well-worn path of trying to find an agent and a suitable publisher to handle the book. I had visions of perusing the web sites of agents, finding that perfect someone who was going to believe in my project and work as my partner to get my books into the light of day. In short, I figured it would be similar to hiring a colleague at work. Or finding a spouse.

What I quickly discovered was that submitting queries was a hopeless process of spending way too much time crafting emails to people who hate you before you begin, who are desperately overwhelmed by the volume of emails they receive, and have created a bureaucratic obstacle course to weed out the weak and the faint of heart. Not unlike dealing with an insurance company.

Perhaps the biggest surprise to me was the tone of their guidelines and of their rejection emails, if they responded at all. Some agents take a courteous and professional tone, treating you like a peer. The rest had either a pedantic air, as if they were instructing small children on how to clean up after themselves, or the downright rude I’M TOO BUSY TO TYPE IN LOWERCASE type of approach. Can you imagine how unacceptable it would seem if a writer were to put the following type of information on their web site for prospective agents?

Thank you for your interest in representing The Soterians series! I know that being a literary agent is a tough career, and you’ve worked very hard building what I’m sure is a wonderful base of clients. However, because I get hundreds of emails a day from outstanding agents all over the world, I simply can’t reply to them all. Please follow the guidelines on this page EXACTLY, and if you don’t hear from me, don’t give up! Keep working hard, and always believe in yourself!
  1. Send an email describing in twenty-five words or less why you’re the ideal agent for me. You really want to stand out from the crowd here, so make it sizzle! The first two words are especially important. Be sure to put “HUMBLE REQUEST FOR CONSIDERATION” in the subject line followed by your first initial and your last name.
  2. Below this paragraph, list each of your clients followed by the specific titles you represented and the number of copies they sold. Put each client on a separate line, with each field separated by commas and a semicolon at the end of each line. NO ATTACHMENTS.
  3. After the list, please provide biographical information about yourself. Why did you decide to become a literary agent? What motivates you every day? Where do you see yourself in five years? Do NOT simply enter a link to a page on your web site that already has this information.
  4. Add a link to your web site. Your site must be professionally designed, have a highly polished appearance, and support Internet Explorer 3.0.
If I am interested in your services, you will hear from me in six to nine months. Good luck!
Needless to say, I did not follow the advice in the books to query six thousand agents before giving up. Instead, I decided to self-publish. In my next post, I’ll talk about my journey through self-publishing and some of the lessons I’ve learned along the way.
Self-publishing isn’t for everyone. You don’t have anyone holding your hand. You have to do your homework, and your own publicity. But even if you get a traditional publisher, you still have to promote and sell your book. Publishers simply don’t risk their marketing budgets on new authors.

I hoped I could buy my way out of doing my own publicity by going with one of those pay-to-play publishers who supposedly guide you through the process. But after discovering that they would not back me unless I made sure my book strictly adhered to the Chicago Manual of Style (which makes perfect sense for non-fiction but zero sense for a young-adult fantasy novel written in the first person), I realized that there really was no way out of doing everything myself.

I finally discovered Amazon’s print-on-demand service, CreateSpace, and I’ve been very happy with my choice. There’s no setup cost, just a per-copy cost that’s not as cheap as if you were printing thousands at a time but is still reasonable. They provide some basic tools to help you get started, such as a cover creator tool, or you can upload a PDF of your cover art that you’ve created in Photoshop or another tool. I uploaded my cover art and my manuscript, a week later I had a proof copy, and the next day my book was available for sale on my eStore (it takes another week for it to be available on Amazon). It’s that simple.

Print-on-demand isn’t perfect. The cover art can shift up to an eighth of an inch during printing and still be considered acceptable. I wasn’t happy about this, but I worked around it by designing the spine of the book so that nothing goes right up to the edge, making it less obvious when the artwork has shifted. Also, they charge sales tax on copies you buy to resell, so I’m not sure how that’s going to work out with distribution—I’m looking into distribution options and will post my findings in a future blog entry. Maybe my series will get so popular that I have to go looking for a traditional publisher after all.

Or maybe I’ll post a Publisher’s Guidelines page on my site and let them come to me.

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