Saturday, 6 October 2018

The business of selling a novel...

I wanted to write a post about how to get yourself an agent for your book, but if I'm being really honest, I don't know the first thing about it.  Ask my writer friends.  I bet they're all getting fairly sick of my emails and text messages second guessing myself about query emails and how to follow up when you don't hear back.

The weird paradox about writing is the whole time that you're writing your book, you need to strive for self-improvement, and you need to be really humble and absorb as many lessons as you can along the way.  I think this is why a lot of writers are really hard on themselves and set these impossible goals that they later feel terrible for not having met.  (No?  Just me?)  Then, when it actually comes to the whole business of trying to 'sell' your book, you have to do a complete 180 and become like a used car salesman.  See this here book, it's a really beauty, only one owner, complete introvert, pretty much worked on it every night to the detriment of her social life and her studies and her sleep.  Comes with a great social media presence, practically publishes itself.  That part doesn't come naturally to a lot of people.  Writers, we're great at singing each others' praises, but we're not all that keen on talking about ourselves unless it's to be self deprecating a lot of the time.  And for some of us (again, this could just be me), the difficult thing is that even if we do feel like we've written the best book since... I don't know, Life After Life or The Husband's Secret or something else that sold a million copies is beloved by book clubs... we feel like we are not allowed to say that we think it's good.

What's that Flannery O'Connor quote?  Something about writers who think they can write usually not being that great, and the ones who think they're the worst being geniuses?  Or was that a made up quote trotted out in my Undergraduate degree to scare us all?  O'Connor certainly has a lot of interesting thoughts on writing, but this particular sound bite escapes me at the moment.  For now, if you're interested, here's a list where she throws a lot of shade at Ayn Rand. 

So, the process of seeking an agent or seeking a publisher.  Is there even a process?  Perhaps it is different for everyone.  Regardless, there's something nerve wracking about needing to condense down all the best things about you and your book into a single email, and sending it winging off into the internet black hole, then waiting for a response.  It produces the kind of anxiety that, in this day and age, has most of us checking our email nine hundred times a day, or until our phone battery wears out, whichever comes first. 

There are a few things I have learned, and while these things might not help you with your agent-seeking, I hope that they might help you in some way. 

1. Write something else.  

You're going to be waiting a long time, probably a month at minimum, for any kind of meaningful response.  So get your submission package together, send it off, have the full manuscript ready to go, but then forget about it.  No one is expecting you to be ready to hit send on that full manuscript within seconds of receiving the request.  So send your book off and be ready by all means, but don't wait by the phone or the computer.  If you can, work on something else.  If not a new book, maybe a short story, or a screen play, or some poetry, or a scarf or a cake or a painting... and so on and so forth.  Let the response, when it comes, be a pleasant surprise.

2.  Don't expect acknowledgement of your email.

A few times, I've been tempted to follow up my pitches early because I haven't had any indication that my email even reached the person I wanted it to.  But if you've checked that you spelled the email address correctly and you know that the email has left your outbox, then they probably got it.  Agents are busy people.  In a recent episode of an excellent podcast called The First Time, hosts Kate and Katherine talked to agent Jacinta di Mase, who outlined how many unsolicited pitches she was getting a day even when the website stated that she was closed for submissions.  You're just one writer, and yeah, it can sting a little to not even get a response, but try not to take it personally.  It's not personal.  It's business. 

3. Know that you are not the first person that this has happened to and you will not be the last.

While there are lots of ways to get published these days, there are also lots of ways to not get published.  Lately, I've really been getting a lot of comfort and joy out of reading a few literary memoirs-- in particular Nell Stevens' two books, Bleaker House and Mrs Gaskell and Me.  Reading these has helped me remember that I do the work because I love it, and that getting the book published would be gravy, rather than the whole meal.  Other books that may help-- even if it's just to make you laugh at the industry, or feel a little more like you understand it, include My Salinger Year by Joanna Rakoff or The Wife by Meg Wolitzer.  You could even do what I did recently and binge watch Younger, which, while being largely ridiculous and far fetched, has a lot of great inside jokes for anyone who has worked in writing, publishing, bookselling etc.  Plus, Nico Tortorella. 



At the end of the day, the writers who get published are the ones who don't stop writing.  There's no giant hourglass somewhere with time running out, and no one is going to say oh, the sand has all gone into the bottom now, guess you better become an accountant.  Perhaps a better Flannery O'Connor quote to think of here is this one:

Writing a novel is a terrible experience, during which the hair often falls out and the teeth decay.  I'm always irritated by people who imply that writing fiction is an escape from reality.  It is a plunge into reality and it's very shocking to the system.

She talks about writing here, but I think it's the stuff around the writing that's more of a shock, that's more damaging to the soul.

If you've got a great story to share about your experience with agents and publishers, feel free to send it through in the comments. 

Thanks for reading, and happy writing to you all.