Last week, I received an email from a high school buddy with whom I had not spoken in decades. It’s always nice to reconnect. Turns out that he and his wife are both writing fiction now–she a cozy mystery and he a fantasy/sci-fi novel–and he had some questions, and it occurred to me as I responded, the the whole exchange would make a nice post for TKZ.
First, to quote from his letter, “[My wife has] had no luck so far finding an agent, and wanted to know a few things that a published author might be able to enlighten her on. Specifically, she wants to know, did you have to have your manuscripts professionally edited before submitting them to potential agents? This seems a very expensive route for something that might not be picked up by anyone. Also, many agents seem to want to know “how you intend to market your book.” We always thought this was something the publisher did. So, what are they looking for with this question? I understand that all agents aren’t the same, but any information could help her get really started here. she has started work on books two and three, and has a basic outline of the series for quite a long way down the road, so if we can maximize her chances of getting it considered by someone, any help would be greatly appreciated!”
Here is my response to him, picking up after the pleasantries:
You’ve asked some questions that are probably more complex than you realize, but I’ll give it shot. First I encourage you to visit my website and click on the “Essays” tab. You’ll find a section in the middle of that page that chronicles how I got published. I should throw in a caveat that I found my first agent in 1995. I cut my teeth in this business when all correspondence required envelopes and stamps, but the one thing that remains unchanged about the publishing industry is the continuing and insatiable need for good stories told well.
I urge your wife (and you, too) to look into a group called Sisters In Crime (SinC). I’m not a member, but I know many writers of all levels of success who sing the praises of that group for its helpfulness to new and upcoming writers.
I personally have never used an outside editor, but I know many writers who do. The point here is to make your manuscript as perfect as it can be before shipping it around to agents and editors. The risk of using an outside editor is that not all are created equal. It falls on the author’s shoulders to make sure that any changes proposed by an editor are in fact changes the author wants to make. Sometimes, bad advice is worse than no advice at all.
As for the expense, only you can decide what is reasonable and what is not. I guess it depends on how good your writerly instincts are, and how intent you are in seeing your works published.
The job of an editor at a publishing house is more that of a project manager than an editor in the sense that most people imagine them. The editor is the person who buys the book, manages the cover design, and fights for dollars during marketing meetings. They offer editorial input, of course, but they focus on making an already very good manuscript even better. If the prose or the story require too much work, they’ll pass.
This brings us to the role of the agent. Through the relationships they’ve built over the years with various houses, agents are aware of various editors’ tastes and desires. The agent’s job is to spot literary properties that a) are already very well written, and b) are likely to fill a niche. My agent, for example, is keenly dialed into the thriller market, the genre I write. If I decided to write, say, a children’s book or a romance, she’d be of little help to me because she doesn’t know those markets and she doesn’t know the editors who acquire those books.
Now to marketing. It’s a quirk of the publishing industry that irrespective of genre, a book is a product to be sold, and it goes stale on the shelf after only a month or two. Books are largely forgotten after a period of time has passed.
What people remember, however, is the author. Just as a book is a product, think of the author as the brand. People who like cars have an opinion of, say, Ford that infects and affects buying decisions. I happen to like Fords, so when I go shopping for a new car, that’s my go-to brand. (On the flip side, my only experience with a General Motors vehicle–30 years ago!–was so awful that I would never consider another GM product, no matter what JD Powers might say.) That’s the power–both the good and the bad–of branding.
If you’ll forgive me for referring to myself in the third person, John Gilstrap is my brand. After 18 published novels, people who buy a Gilstrap book know that they’re going to get a wild ride with a story that is heavy on character and plot. Good guys win in the aggregate, and bad guys have very, very bad days. Whether part of my series, or in a stand alone novel, every story shares those basic characteristics.
No one is better able to build an author’s brand than the author him- or herself. This means, to the degree that time and money allow, flogging social media, attending conferences, visiting bookstores, writing newsletters, establishing mailing lists, and any other strategies that might work. A writer of commercial fiction is his own small business, and all of the principles of business apply. When prospective agents ask about your marketing plans and platforms, this is what they’re wanting to know.
When a publisher offers a contract, they are in fact, investing in your business. They will make sure that your product finds shelf space and distribution, and they’ll do their best to make the packaging attractive and engaging. But if you don’t help them do their job, the smart business move on their part would be to invest in someone else’s business.
The letter then closed with some personal pleasantries. So, what say you, TKZers? Did I lead my buddy astray? What did I leave out?
NOTE: Since this is my last post of 2018, pending the arrival of our annual holiday hiatus, let me wish all of you a wonderful Christmas, Hanukkah, or whatever religious holiday you my celebrate. To all, here’s to lots of love and laughter and a wonderful, prosperous and healthy 2019. It’s an honor to be a part of this great community of writers and readers and friends. God bless us, every one.