Thursday, March 14, 2013

Self publishing Thursday--post the third

So. You have edited your book to the best of your ability. Sure, you can go publish it right now. It probably won't go over too well. "The best of your ability" right now? That's not going to be "the best of your ability" once you're done with this next part.

And if you're following the plan? The next part is submitting it to the pros. Agents, ladies and gents. It is time for us to find an agent. Or possibly a publisher, if you're in the mood for that too. But how do you FIND one of these strange creatures? And how do you make sure you're submitting to a good one?

1. Find a list. There are several.

The most famous, of course, is probably Writer's Market. It is a listing of publishers, agents, magazines. It also comes with the bare minimum of advice. Stephen King started out fishing magazine names out of the back of a three year old version back in the seventies.

I'm a little meh about Writer's Market. Anybody can get listed. ANYBODY. And Writer's Market doesn't give you any indications of how good that market actually is beyond how much money they will pay you. You can buy it, but you will wind up using the other lists I'm going to give you anyway, because verifying the legitimacy of a given market is more important IMHO than finding that market in the first place. It's also a static book, and nothing is worse than using outdated information for an agent or publisher. So look forward to buying a new one every year.

Another good list is Publisher's Marketplace, and you can tell it's a good info source because my gut did one of those fun "bad memory drop" things when I opened the site. I used it a LOT in my query days. Yes. It's hard to navigate that site and it REALLY pushes for you to get a paid account. You don't need one. This is what you look for:

 The next page is just as confusing, so just ignore it and go back to the side bar over here:

Click on the applicable link and fill out the things on the search form you actually understand. (I don't know what half of those things mean, and half of them I don't understand why that would apply to my book, so I leave them alone). You'll get a list of results.

You'll also note how a lot of those categories don't apply to people looking for a trade publisher. Yes, folks, we'll be coming back here when it's time to start self publishing our books. 

That said, all that you'll see on those pages are what the agent/publisher/whatever wants you to see. And impressive stats, I am sorry to say, are easy as fuck to fake. This is a better option than Writer's Market because the info is more up to date, and there will be a direct link to the person's website with even more up-to-date info.

The third list is Query Tracker. Again: up to date information, you're still just seeing what the agent/publisher wants you to see, and you'll still have to vet the ever-loving daylights out of the company before you submit. One thing Query Tracker offers that Writer's Market and Publisher's Marketplace don't is query history. How long a publisher or agent takes to actually answer a query, what the ratio of rejections to requests is, whether those requests are for partials (part of the manuscript) or fulls (all of the manuscript) and so on. Useful stuff.

The last two places are, of course, places I've brought up before. Predators and Editors is a database of every publisher, agent, and author service the guy running it has ever heard of, and Dave Kuzminski camps out on Absolute Write more than I do. He's heard of a lot. Most of his listings do not tell you genre, contact info, submission guidelines or even link to the respective agent's pages, but they DO tell you something even more important: If you can actually trust that person with your work. A typical page looks like this:

We have, in order, a LONG accounting of how an offscreen agent got charged with a felony, a breif accounting of how another agent was charged with theft, Agent that is a member of Association of Author's Representatives, which is a good thing, and a dollar sign that indicates this agent has many good, known sales, A random agent, a retired/mia agent, one of the best human beings in the universe and certainly one of the best agents (Seriously: I heart Janet Reid.) Agent with known sales, another random agent, and another agent with known sales and AAR membership.

And last but most importantly, yep kids, you knew this was coming, The Absolute Write Water Cooler's Beware and Background Check's forum. Bookmark it and CAMP there. Any day you start researching and mailing queries? B&BC should be in an open tab. I AM NOT KIDDING. They have a thread on everybody. I found them by googling agents in Writer's Market and finding them in the first or second result EVERY. SINGLE. TIME. They're also useful because agents I hadn't submitted to would float to the forum's surface every once in a while. You can find out everything there except prefered genres and submission guidelines: website links, how trustworthy they are, how long you can expect to wait between query and answer, how polite the agent is.

My query submission research was basically all of the last four sites. Find the agent on either Publisher's Marketplace or Query Tracker, check their website, vet them via P&E and B&BC, and then send away.

Which brings us to the next step:

2. Vet them. Vet them. VET THEM. 

You cannot skip this step. My day of query research, I googled five agencies out of Writer's Market. One of them was Desert Rose. Only two of them turned up good, and that's actually a really, REALLY good result. There were days where everybody in my genre seemed to be either charging fees, inexperianced or a flat out scam artist.

So. First thing you do is find the agency. We're going to use Janet Reid as an example because she is awesome, and she's not my genre so I have no ulterior motive in flattering her. (other than that she's awesome.)

Let's say we find her through publisher's marketplace.

The first thing you look for are language red flags. (For the record, I don't see any in her listing) Look for language that talks about "making dreams come true" or anything that makes your heart pound and your hopes soar, because that usually indicates this person either has no idea what the fuck they're talking about or they're trying to shut your brain off and get you to submit without researching further. That's not a "Fuck no" finding, but that means you need to be VERY careful.

Instead of praising you, Janet just tells you what she's looking for. File that stuff for the next stage and move down to her client listings.

If an agent lists no clients, that's a red flag. You want a good, successful agent with lots of contacts and a good track record. Someone who has all these things will post them everywhere. Stephenie Meyer's agent has Stephenie Meyer's name listed on her webpage, I PROMISE you. Janet has a huge client list. Look for names you recognize because that usually indicates a successful author, and that in turn can indicate that this agent can make YOU a successful author. Janet represents a lot of successful people.

Now go down to her sales list.

Again: An agent shy of listing sales either has no sales to list, or they have sales that they don't want to brag about. An agent with good sales is probably resisting the urge to wallpaper the outside of their office building with the list. However, some agents will make sales to publishers that don't require agents to submit, and will use those sales to build a "fake" list, so you have to put in a little legwork at this point. Google the name of the publisher and check their submission guidelines, their P&E listing and their B&BC thread. Usually if you see "no unsolicited manuscripts" that means you need an agent to make a sale and that means the agent in question is a good one. However, if the press is a big enough deal (IE Baen and Tor) an agent will equal a response in a couple of months rather than two or three years.

Janet has had sales to Harper (Big deal) Soho Press (I'm not familiar with that publisher, but a quick
google says Big Deal, so that gets a pass) and Warner Brothers.

As in the movie studio. As in one of her clients has had a movie deal. That's HUGE.

Now. Check the dates on every sale. A sale two years ago has less weight than a sale last year. A sale last year has less weight than a sale last month. Agents are usually slow to update these listings, so we'll stick with sales within the last two years. Which Janet has (a 2013 publication date usually indicates a 2012 sale)

If an agent's last sale to a big deal publisher was five years ago? PASS.

We can now reasonably assume that Janet Reid can sell your manuscript to a good publisher and make sure you get a good deal in the bargain.

However, we need to be thorough. Does she charge fees? How does she behave towards her authors?  Well, let's go back to her P&E listing. First off, that dollar sign indicates she has sales. That's good. That "recommended" means she passes P&E's vetting criteria. This is also good. Finally, that AAR membership means she can't charge fees for her services beyond her commission for selling your book, because AAR members have a strict set of conduct guidelines they have to follow to qualify for membership. So that's a HUGE point in her favor.

Last but not least: B&BC thread.

Everybody hearts Janet on Absolute Write. And yeah, it's kind of not fair to use Janet as an example because she does amazing things for writers who aren't her clients too. Both her blog and her other blog are must-reads for writers of any sort.

Ah, but we're not done. We know the agent is legit, but is she our agent? Time to check what genres she represents.  Publisher's marketplace says:
General fiction


I read that back in '10, and I was like "OH FUCK, really?" because my genres are sci-fi and fantasy and neither of those are there, and that meant I had to just worship from afar. NEVER submit to an agent who doesn't have your genre on the list. Not having fantasy on the list means the agent doesn't do fantasy, maybe she doesn't even like fantasy, maybe she just doesn't have connections to the fantasy people in the editing departments. Either way, publishing is REALLY specialized. The team doing Mystery is going to be different from the team doing Fantasy, and the more specialized an agent is, the better they know the genres they represent. If you REALLY want a rejection letter right now? Submit. But if you want to minimize the number of rejections you get, hedge your bet and leave agents out of your genre alone. Do not annoy the agent.

But if your genre is there? Goody. Look at what she's looking for specifically. On Publisher's marketplace, she gives you a couple good examples. She really wants a good biography, or something on current events. She doesn't want any books about assassinating a president. If your book is Dead Zone meets Mean Girls? You're SOL. If your book is a biography of the Texas Seven? YAY! You might be what she's looking for.

A publisher changes things up a little bit, but not much. A good publisher will make finding their submission guidelines hard. Not because they don't want you to submit, but because they are far more interested in you buying their books than they are in looking at your book. That's because selling their books is how they make their money. Again, the "dream" language is a massive red flag because it means their model is focused more on writers than it is on actual customers, and that's bad for you. "We help authors reach their dreams!" turns me off faster than Stilton Cheese breath. Another red flag is a micropress that prints everything. Again, publishing is really specialized, and you want somebody focused on YOUR genre. Check bookstores for their books, and then check their Amazon rankings. Low numbers=high sales. DO NOT SUBMIT TO ANYBODY WHOSE BOOKS HAVE A RANKING GREATER THAN 100,000. That means their books are selling less than a copy a day. Those are self publisher numbers, and it means you'll be better off alone than you would with that press. Check covers. Check their P&E and B&BC threads. Read the last page first. There have been several spectacular meltdowns in the last several years (Dorchester-Leisure being a big one) and when it hits the AW boards the back end of the threads explode. You want to know how a press is doing RIGHT NOW, and not ten years ago.
3. Build a list of your own. God made Excel spreadsheets for a reason.

 Now that you've vetted and cleared a number of agents and publishers, it's time to put a list together. Mine is very simple: Name of agent, date of query submission, and date of rejection. Why do we do this?

Because 50 rejections is kind of normal. Most published writers have hundreds of rejections. Stephen King had so many rejections the nail he hung them all on broke. And when you have submitted to fifty agents, it gets kind of hard to remember which ones you've sent off to. Then you have the remote chance that the agent is interested. You can keep track of requests for your manuscript. And sometimes agents will ask you to remind them that you submitted something, so if its been six months since query/full submission AND THE AGENT SPECIFICALLY ASKS THAT YOU DO THIS, your list can remind you to do a follow-up. Again, do only if an agent asks you to follow-up after X number of weeks, because you do not want to annoy the agent.

4. Find and Follow the Submission Guidelines. To the letter.

99.99999% of rejections are due to bad submission packets. Let's head back over to Janet Reid's website and take a look at what hers are.

First thing you see? She prefers e-mail queries. This means don't send her paper anything. Some agents prefer snail-mail queries. (I have never submitted to snail-mail agents because REALLY? REALLY? IT IS 2013 AND YOU WILL BE SENDING ME A PIECE OF PAPER WITH "NO" WRITTEN ON IT ANYWAY WHY CAN WE NOT DO THIS ELECTRONICALLY? THE TREES THINK OF THE TREES) and that's what you should send. The wrong kind of query? It goes in the round file.

Next up, she tells you what to send WITH your query letter: the first three to five pages.

This is generous. Some agents asks for just the first three. Some ask for the first ten, and I heart them completely. Some ask for the query letter only and if they really like that, they'll ask for pages.

And before you start screaming "How can they judge the whole book from three pages" The answer is they can't. But they CAN judge the writing from the first three pages. Often, from the first one. Most queries do not get read past that first page. And even though I said rejections are the result of bad submissions, most of the time you can also blame it on that first page. This is why I recommend you do this even if you intend to self-publish the book. You WILL be revising those opening pages until your eyes bleed and your brain dribbles out of your ears, and that goes double for your query letter. (Which I will talk about next week) If the writing passes, they'll start asking for more of the book.

She tells you how to send those pages (pasted into the e-mail, not as an attachment. I have only seen TWO agents ask for attachments on that first e-mail) and what to title your e-mail (Query for TITLE) so that she doesn't immediately pitch the e-mail into the round file as spam.

Then she tells you what she wants (Thriller, mystery, death penalty stuff) and what she doesn't want (Fantasy or sci-fi. Fuck.)

I also know that she doesn't want scary ghost story thrillers because she said on Query Shark that those plots give her the screaming willies. Which means the more you follow agents, the more information you'll find out about what they're looking for.

Publishing: The only industry that ENCOURAGES e-stalking. 

If there is ONE problematic thing in the whole set of guidelines, it is this: "When in doubt, query me. I'd rather see something that's not right for me than miss something fabulous."

This does not mean: "Send me your 20K story about elves or the 150K query re: Vampires in Space because you hope I'll be interested in it anyway." This means "If I have not already specifically said no to this type of book, submit."

Sometimes she does ask for fantasy or sci-fi stuff if she gets something interesting on Query Shark. If it's really good, she doesn't keep it. She sends it over to Suzie Townsend/whoever is the leading fantasy agent on Fineprint Lit these days.

Your book is probably not that "something fabulous" she's looking for. It's better not to annoy the awesome agent.  

5. Assume it's a rejection. ALWAYS assume it's a rejection. It's easier to handle.

 I really hate rejection letters. Not because it's a rejection, but because rejection letters are usually the biggest piece of overwritten tripe you'll ever encounter in your life. You want two things: YES or NO. And if it is a NO you want to get it over with that much faster so that you can move on to the crying and the whiskey and the chocolate.

Instead, most of them start out with a "thanks for submitting" line, a line explaining why you're getting a form letter and/or a line explaining why the e-mail is coming from the agent's assistant's e-mail account (because the assistant is the one that reads the queries. Because you WANT the assistant to b the one reading the queries) and then a "No" that seems to ignore that Strunk and White rule about not using six words where one will do. "We regret to inform you we are not interested"=NO.

You will see many badly written nos. 

Remind yourself what your ultimate goal is: Make the best book you possibly can. Remember that you never intended to get trade publication even though you'd really like it. Remind yourself that this is practice for when some idiot teenager gives you a badly spelled one star review because Plot Element A didn't meet their expectations.

Get incredibly drunk. Go repeat steps 1-5. 

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