Inspired by true events . . . authors, agents, and publishing.

Last Saturday, I trekked 60 miles – about an hour and a half – to hear a ‘publishing panel’ at the Wichita Public Library.

I didn’t really know what to expect, and since I was about 15 minutes late (darn my addiction to white chocolate-cinnamon chip scones!) I honestly can’t tell you who the panelists were – I know one of them was former Kansas Poet Laureate Denise Low-Weso, who is co-publisher of Mammoth Publications ( (No, the information’s not available on the library’s website, either, sorry!) By the time I got there, they were taking questions from the audience.

Most of the audience seemed to be beginning writers – there were some that were already published, either by small presses or self-published. I have to say that I think the panelists would have been best if left alone to answer the questions. However, there was a facilitator – a librarian – who simply wouldn’t let that happen. By the time it was over (half an hour early), my inner teacher had kicked in and I wanted to stand up and say LISTEN PEOPLE, IF YOU REALLY WANT TO KNOW THE ANSWERS TO YOUR QUESTIONS, LET’S GO OUTSIDE AND I’LL GIVE IT MY BEST SHOT! It was pretty clear that most people had come to get specific answers to specific questions – but they didn’t get them. And I felt so bad for them.

But I did want to address one question that was handled so poorly, the advice given was useless. Here it is:

I’m already self-published, but I haven’t had much success. How would I break into mainstream publishing? The facilitator wouldn’t let the panelists answer this question. She answered it herself and her answer was total crap. Her suggestion was to get a blog and get your books listed on Goodreads.

pointing+hand+vintage+image+graphicsfairy2Here’s the real answer:  GET AN AGENT. It really is the only way to break into mainstream publishing, even with small houses. Very few reputable publishing houses will accept unsolicited manuscripts. They just get too many! Last year, a fairly well-known sci-fi publisher accepted open submissions (no agents) for 30 days. They had more than 5,000 submissions. They did not read them all. Agents, for better or worse, have become the gatekeepers of the publishing world.

Agents aren’t just a gateway, though. They may be the first people to really critique your book and give you honest, unflinching, realistic views about it. I love my beta readers in large part because I know they will tell me that crap is crap. But so many people don’t have those kinds of betas – they have the kind that gushes over everything and proclaims it perfect. (Much the same way I imagine Trump’s handlers must do every time he opens his mouth and tries to utter a coherent sentence and fails spectacularly.) Agents don’t have time to do that, though. This is their business. They’ve got to sell books to publishers in order to keep their cars and houses. That’s why they’re so choosy about the projects they take on. On average, agents will only take on a teeny, tiny fraction of authors who actually query them. They don’t have time to do more.

Your first taste of how critical agents can be will come with the query letter. (For more on this, see my blog post ) But I will say this:  the days of a form query letter addressed to ‘sir or madam’ are OVER. If your query letter isn’t 100% right, kiss that agent goodbye. Agents have requirements on their websites. Follow those requirements. Follow them to the letter.

There’s several responses you might get to your query letter. A lot of agents don’t even respond to query letters if the answer is ‘no,’ and I think that’s just wrong. Some will send a form letter back – ‘thanks but this isn’t for us.’ If the manuscript is good, but not their thing or not quite ready, they might send a personalized note – ‘Hey,  I really liked x, y, and z about this, but I’m not the best fit for the project,’ or ‘Like the concept, but the main character needs work.’ If they like the manuscript and they think it’s close to being ready they might say ‘look, I’m excited about this project, but there’s changes that need to be made to it. I’ve got them listed on the next page. If you’re willing to do that, then resubmit when you’re done and we’ll talk.’

If you get that last one, the agent’s interested. Really interested. If they take the time to not only read your manuscript, but also to make detailed notes about what they’d like to see changed, they’re interested.

Of course, what you really want is an email that says “OMG, I love this – can I call you at x time on x day to talk about representation???? Please????” 🙂 Been there, done that, best feeling in the world!!!! But even then, you might find that the agent isn’t the best fit for you and your work – and it’s up to you to make that decision. They might be asking for changes you’re not willing or able to make. That’s where you have to take a step back and say okay, do I want to be published – or do I want to be a writer? No, they’re not the same thing.

But to get back to the original question –

Agents are the ones who know what editors want. A lot of them started out in publishing, as either editors or junior editors. They know how to make a pile of pages into a book. They know which editors are actively seeking new projects – and what they want. And agents are the only good way to break into traditional publishing.

The sad fact is this:  yes, there are a handful of self-published authors out there who had the traditional publishing world come knocking at the door. A handful. That’s it. Hugh Howey had this kind of success with Wool (it started as a short story that evolved into an online novel; but by the time Simon & Schuster came along, it was already making more than $100,000/month on Amazon). And of course . . . E.L. James and Fifty Shades of Grey. But seriously? That’s like IT. So the odds of your novel a.) making it big on Amazon and b.) attracting an unsolicited bidding war between the Big Five are c.) astronomical.

I did a blog post a while back that included a bit about self-publishing – – and the fact is this:  if you’re self-published and your novel isn’t doing well, it’s time to pull it and think about why that is. That’s what a good agent can help you with. (Also, a good freelance editor, who will – for a fee – read your manuscript and make suggestions. If you’re not good at editing, spelling, grammar, etc. I highly recommend you do this.)

One last sad fact to leave you with today:  most writers won’t break into mainstream publishing, depending on what your definition of ‘mainstream publishing’ is. If you’re only shooting for the Big Five, it’s a long uphill slog. If you’re okay with a smaller press, you’re in luck – they’re much more willing to take on new authors and more willing to work with you to make that novel successful. Again, these are things your agent will discuss with you.

But if you want to be published ‘mainstream,’ finding an agent is the only way to do it.

Some helpful links: – this is the latest issue of Writer’s Digest, which had some great insights into what agents are seeking, as well as a list of new agents seeking authors. No, there’s no articles here, but you can run out to your local bookstore and grab it. 🙂 – from Writer’s Digest. – from the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America, on how to find an agent.






Agents, Authors, and Query Letters, Oh My!

This weekend, I went to the Oklahoma Writers’ Federation (OWFI) conference in Oklahoma City. It’s a good gathering of writers from all over – Kansas, Oklahoma (of course), Texas, and Arkansas (and I’m sure I’ve missed a few).

If you’ve never been to a writing conference, you should. It’s a great excuse to come up out of the basement, put on your sunglasses, and meet other writers. Plus, if your novel is nearly ready to query, you can pitch to agents and editors who might be interested.

There were several agents at OWFI this year, and they all shared their knowledge, experience, and opinions about the querying process. If you hope to get published by one of the Big Five – and even some smaller presses – you have to have an agent. No way around it. They’re the gatekeepers. (I will not make a comment about keymasters . . .) Anyway, they ALL want to find the Next Big Thing. They all want to discover that next Night Circus or Angels and Demons. Believe it or not, they want authors to do this properly so they know if this manuscript is a good fit for them or not.

So here’s some of the tips I took away from the conference. Some are pretty basic, and yet new authors always ignore them; some are more particular.

Follow the querying guidelines set out by the agent and/or agency. Every agent and agency has a different set of guidelines for querying them. Some aren’t even accepting queries right now. If they aren’t, they’ll say so on their website. Make sure you follow those guidelines to the letter. If they want a one-page synopsis plus the first twenty pages, send them exactly that. If they want a one-page query with a short author biography, and the first two chapters, send exactly that.

Never, ever say “Dear Agent.” This is a red flag that you don’t care enough about your project to do a proper query letter – or enough about the agent to even find out their name! At the very least, do that much. But you should go further. You should read interviews the agent has done. Follow them on Twitter. Look at the other novels they’ve accepted. Read their blog, if they have one. You can reference something in the query – “I read in your interview with Writer’s Digest that you’re looking for x and y. I’m hopeful my manuscript will be a good fit with you.” That shows them you care.

And on that note, never, ever query an agent who isn’t looking for what you’re writing. If they only represent Christian fiction, your vampire erotica is probably not what they’re wanting. (Although there is this sub-genre of Amish werewolf novels that’s sort of interesting . . .)

Be polite. Always. Something I didn’t know, but learned this weekend:  agents apparently talk to each other! Who knew? If a book isn’t quite for them, but they know someone who’s looking for something similar, they’ll pass it along (especially in their own agency). They belong to online groups. They follow each other on Twitter. They’re Facebook friends. If you’re nice and your project is good, they will tell others. If they reject you and you get nasty with them, they will tell others.

Make it appealing to the eye. Brent Taylor of TriadaUS Literary Agency was very, very big on this. He wants concise queries that get the point across and hook him in just three paragraphs. Three short paragraphs. The shorter, the better. Agents get 300 queries a week – sometimes, they get 300 queries a day. If they see huge blocks of text, they’ll skim. Because of that, they may pass on your novel. Be concise. Get to the point. Tell them the following:

  • Who is the MC?
  • What is the inciting incident (the one event that starts them on the path)?
  • What does the MC want (motive)?
  • What’s standing in their way of getting it?
  • What will happen if they don’t get what they want? What are the stakes?

And ideally, you’ll do all this in three short paragraphs that also provide the voice of the novel. According to Brent (and bear in mind, this is his preference; see #1 above), your three paragraphs should be structured like this:

  • Paragraph 1:  Introduce your MC, their voice, and their motives (what they want). Why should we sympathize with them? Voice:  If your book is funny, make the query funny. If your MC speaks with an accent, make that come across.
  • Paragraph 2:  Introduce the conflict and the stakes. What is the MC’s goal? What’s keeping them from their goal?
  • Paragraph 3:  What happens if the MC doesn’t get their goal? Don’t give away too much – definitely don’t give away your resolution! End it on a suspenseful note that makes the agent want to know more.

Do your homework about your genre and your competition. Agents often want to know (again, see #1 above) that you know your competition. They need to be able to immediately compare your novel to others, to quickly get across what it’s like. (Sort of like saying “It tastes like chicken!”) By comparing your book to similar novels, you give the agent an instant inkling of what it’s going to be like. In turn, they can use that to pitch your book to editors.

Spend time on your query. Lots of time. Lots. Draft. Revise. Edit. Rewrite. You’ve spent a lot of time on your novel. Make sure your query letter is just as perfect! And see #1 above. 🙂