What We Talk About When We Talk About Publishing

It is rare for someone to ask me about my writing.

It is so rare, in fact, that when it happens, I feel suddenly tongue-tied, and speak in sweeping statements that are likely confusing, and lead the other person into thinking that I don’t want to talk about my work.

After a lot of introspection, I think that this happens for two reasons (both having to do with me, not the other person).
1. Very few people know that I have written three books. Why? Because I don’t tell them.
2. When people do know, and do ask, I have a very difficult time explaining the publishing process.

It’s this second point that I want to focus on. I struggle with explaining the publishing industry, not because I’m not knowledgeable, but rather because I worry that A) people don’t care or B) people know all of this already or C) Worst of all: people will think that I’m making it sound harder than it is to get published.

And so, here, today, is the process that takes place after you’ve written, revised, gotten feedback from trusted readers, revised again, and believe you have a “final” version of your manuscript.  I’m talking here about traditional publishing, (as opposed to self-publishing) which is analogous to no other industry I know of. Raymond Carver has a famous short story, What We Talk about When We Talk About Love, where four characters, quite in the dark (literally and figuratively) sit around a table and try to define love. Publishing is tangible, of course. It is not the ephemeral notion Carver was writing about, but still, when I try to explain it, my social anxiety goes into high gear. I bumble around, as if needing to feel around a dark room with my palms.  No more of that. And so, without further ado, here’s What We Talk About When We Talk about Publishing.

1. The first step is to find a literary agent. This is the step many writers get stuck on, and for good reason. To get an agent, a writer needs to compose a “query letter.” This query contains a pitch of the book, a brief synopsis, and an author bio. This involves a great deal of research, because all literary agents don’t represent all genres. It’s important to point out that a writer does not pay her agent. A legitimate agent only takes a percentage once the book is under contract.

Once you’ve found the agents you want to query, you send the emails—probably only in small batches at a time. (I think I sent out in batches of about six.)  Agents receive many queries a month, so the process of hearing back is a very long one. (If interested in the real scope, here are my agent’s query stats for 2016.) If the agent doesn’t think the book is a good fit, you will receive a rejection, sometimes with valuable feedback, often not. (You might receive ten of these. You might receive twenty.) If an agent is interested in your book, she might request either a “partial” (some of your book) or a “full” (the whole book). This can also take months, as the prospective agent has to juggle reading client work (which takes precedence) as well as requested manuscripts. If the agent wants to represent your book, you have hit the jackpot of the writing world. These offers are few and far between and they are coveted like the golden tickets of Wonka’s factory.

2. If you are agented (yay! Congratulations!) it is likely that your book will undergo further revision. If your agent is editorial, (mine is) she will have a much better eye for current market trends and what she can or can’t sell than you do. You will revise again based on your agent’s feedback.

3. Go on Submission – Once you and your agent have agreed that this is the “final” (Is it ever ‘final’ though? Who are we kidding?) piece, you will be on submission. The most important rule of submission is as follows: Writers must not talk about it. My agent compared it to Fight Club. The first rule of submission is not to talk about submission. This is because a writer doesn’t necessarily want an editor to know how long a book has (or hasn’t) been available. Think of it like a house that has been for sale for a long time. A buyer is going to have a of questions about why the house hasn’t sold and become wary of purchasing it. Aside from that mandated silence, being on submission really means that your agent has selected editors at specific publishing houses (Those names you are familiar with: Random House, Harper Collins, etc.- all of which have many smaller imprints) that she believes will be a good fit for your project. Your agent pitches the book to editors at those house—and then—

4. The waiting game – The writer waits. And the writer waits. And the writer waits. An editor can have your manuscript for months before opening the document. Maybe the editor doesn’t feel the project jives with him/her. She will send a rejection (with sometimes very helpful revision ideas) to your agent. Your agent will (kindly, gently) pass this rejection back to you. Sometimes, the editor is excited about the project. If that is the case, the editor will likely get second or third reads from others to see if there is interest among the larger house. From there, your book might go to an Acquisitions Meeting, where it is discussed broadly. It is here, again, that many writers get stuck. So close. The last, final step. But maybe there is something about your book not quite right for the current market. Maybe the book too closely resembles another book the house already possesses. If it’s turned down, the editor will send a rejection letter to your agent, which will again (kindly, gently) be passed on to you. And if the manuscript passes through the acquisitions meeting and there is support for the project—the editor will make an offer, and your book will have a home.

During the long wait, a writer is advised to work on the next project. Make it a project you’re so excited about, that you become invested in it and not so focused on the book that is on submission. In other words: do not, do not, stalk editors on twitter to see if they maybe, perhaps, possibly, tweeted something that might be about your manuscript (don’t ask me how I know). Do not go back to the manuscript and read it over and over, fixing punctuation and wondering, but what if I had just…? Pretend it doesn’t exist. Start fresh. Agonize only in quiet. Despair, Dream, Hope. Again. And Again. And Again.

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