Book publishing 101
Just off a conference call with Josh Vogt.
Vogt writes about speculative fiction for examiner.com and formerly worked in the Simon & Schuster advertising department. He also worked with a literary agent for a while — and notes that breaking in to the market is the challenge most writers face.
Assuming you have your fiction book (or a magazine article) ready for publication. What are your first steps, your goal being to make the fewest mistakes?
Have a system. Keep track of where you submitted, when, to whom, how long it took to get a response, and what response you got. (He uses an Excel spreadsheet.)
The purpose here is to find the right literary agent or publisher.
For a work of fiction, he says, it’s best to get a literary agent. Few publishing houses will take unsolicited or unagented work. Think of the agent as the front runner; sort of like a publishing lawyer. An agent’s job is to get you the best contract, royalties, etc.
Research agents online at www.agentquery.com
The first step, once you have targeted an agent (within your genre), is usually a query letter.
“One page: Here is my book. Here is why you would want to represent it. Would you like to see more?”
Most agents list submission requirements. Most will see several hundred author queries a week. “So send them what they ask for. Submission requirements are to weed out those they would like to, or not like to, work with.”
Follow submission guidelines to the letter as the best way to avoid automatic rejection.
If an agent like what they see in your one-pager, the agent will ask to see more material: Perhaps three chapters, or 50 pages.
If they’re still interested after that, they’ll ask for more.
And if they still like what they see, the agent will most likely offer representation — which means sending your work on to different editors or publishers and shooting for a book contract.
Anyone can call him or herself up as a literary agent. There is no test; no license. So do your homework — your own research — on the agent. “If anyone asks you to pay any sort of fee, run away,” says Vogt.
“You never pay a literary agent out of your pocket (except, sometimes, a small mutually agreed-upon office fee for something like mailings). There should never be a reading fee. The agent should should only get money through publication of the book.”
When you find an agent or publishing company you want to submit to, check out their legitimacy on one (or more) of these sites:
You’ll usually send a query by e-mail or snail mail. But another way to approach an agent and pitch is at a writing conference. Check out for pitch sessions and sign up. Be prepared to suggest why they should represent you and your book. Do your homework first: Again, screen agents and publishers attending to make sure they’re legit.
“The publishing industry is something of a hurry up and wait industry,” Vogt confirmed. You might hear right back — or you might wait six months to a year for a response.
And there’s nothing wrong with self-publishing.
But “be prepared for a lot of hard work. Most established book stores will not allow book signings of self-published books in their stores. You have to supply your own art. And you have to subsidize the book out of pocket — no advance.” (Research self-publishing houses. There are those who have been known to take the money and run.)
(Editor’s note: There are many who swear by self-publishing and not just the tsunami who are going the “new vanity” route: Self-publishing formulaic self-help books — or paying to have themselves embedded in anthologies with “name” writers — to “buy” legitimacy. Stories abound of good writers who self-publish and then get picked up by an agent, or achieve success doing it themselves.)
One key word to success in getting published, said Vogt, is persistence.
These days, even with an agent and a publisher, the onus is on the author to market the book.
Once on the shelves, expect to work really hard. Be prepared to set up the tours yourself, often paying out-of-pocket. You’re expected to do a lot of social networking and self-marketing; to have a website and a blog. The same holds for fiction and nonfiction.
(Note: You might want to look into electronic publishing, for example on Kindle: Amazon’s 6″ Wireless Reading Device (Latest Generation). And into print on demand: Lulu.com, for instance, which offers the option of an electronic or a mailed version.)
Don’t expect to quit your day job if you get a book contract, says Vogt. “The reality is that about 1 percent of writers make enough to consistently to live off their writing.” And about 90 percent of books don’t make a full return on the advance — so scoring from royalties is the exception.
“It’s not necessarily bad to start with a $5,000 advance. You’re more likely to get royalties — and the publisher who makes money is more likely to want to publish a second book,” says Vogt.
Differences between fiction and nonfiction:
With nonfiction, the personal platform is far more important. What’s your professional experience and authority? What’s your credibility.
Querying a literary agent with fiction, the first-time author pretty much needs to have the manuscript complete, polished and ready to go.
Nonfiction is more about presenting the proposal in the first instance; probably the first three chapters and an outline for the rest of the book.
© Wanda Hennig, 2009
What’s your experience? Any successes with agents or publishers? Your biggest challenge? Your greatest success: And what are your thoughts on the “new vanity” route?