Monday, November 24, 2008

Publishing Perils: Querulous Queries

Many of you probably know that I write fiction as well as this blog. Well, I am currently on the hunt/look out/search for a literary agent. Why do I need a literary agent? In the good old days, maybe you didn’t need one. But now days a good editor doesn’t read through the “slush pile.” You need an agent who can call said editor and say, “You’ve got to read this manuscript.” And you need an agent to protect your rights. In this economy, a publishing house can make a lot more money by not giving the author too much. For those of you who haven’t been through the experience, I thought I’d share what it’s like to look for an agent.

Imagine that you’ve spent anywhere from one to five years crafting your novel. Writing, rewriting, agonizing over word choice—should I use the words “he paused”? No! Those are considered cliché words now. So, you’ve got to find another phrase. Something along the lines of “The young woman’s beauty caught his eye, and so he didn’t notice the flag pole until his bicycle crashed into it.” You get the idea? Good. So, you’re done editing. Now, comes what is referred to as the “dreaded query letter,” in which you explain your novel, your qualifications for writing it, throw in a must-read-the-manuscript hook, show off your voice, and give your contact information. All in one page or less. In other words, shove knitting needles into your eyes while juggling ginsu knives. Oh, and by the way, the whole thing must be written in present tense. Why? Who knows? Some literary god with a perverse sense of humor must have planned it this way.

Assuming the “dreaded query” is finished, you now have to research agents. This means hours spent on the web tracking down literary agents and finding out what genres they represent, how they prefer to be contacted (email or snail mail), and what they want to be sent (query only, query with first five pages, query with 1st five pages and synopsis, or a query along with a recommendation from a New York Times best-selling author). Of course, it gets more complicated because there are sub-genres. The book that I’m currently “shopping” to agents is a young adult fiction (not to be confused with children’s or middle grade). In young adult fiction, there are multiple sub-genres: fantasy, chick-lit, paranormal, urban paranormal, literary, coming-of-age, etc., etc. And, of course, agents don’t specify what kind of YA they’re looking for. In fairness to agents, they may get a phone call from an editor saying, “Hey, I want an urban paranormal with a male protagonist.” Guess what the agent’s going to be looking for that day? Yep, a New York City-dwelling 17 year old male protagonist who’s also a werewolf/vampire/zombie living in 2099. Guess whose book is going to get a rejection letter that day? Yep, mine. If I’m lucky the rejection letter will say, “Interesting/intriguing premise, but it’s not what we’re looking for.”

So, you’ve researched literary agents, and sent off your queries. Now, is the waiting game and you try to ignore the statistics, which say that only 1% of queries letters will elicit a request for a partial or a full. Yep, a whole one percent, or less. And that’s only to get you to the next step, which doesn’t guarantee you anything. I know what you’re thinking, “Why on earth do she do this?” The answer is simple. I can’t not write. It’s a kind of madness. But thankfully, it’s one that doesn’t land you in an institution, just garners remarks from acquaintances like “Oh, you’re still doing that.” Yeah, I sure am. It’s a disease—watch out it’s contagious, like chicken pox.
Tune in tomorrow for the next step in the publishing saga. “What happens when an agent requests to see your manuscript?”

ps Yes, yes, I know the queries aren't querulous, it's the writers who are. But, I just couldn't resist.

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