“... the race is not to the swift”
I am not ordinarily the bible-quoting type. This bit of Ecclesiastes, however, addresses a problem I’ve been seeing a lot lately. On-line writing communities have been overrun by the hasty. Perhaps it was always this way and I just failed to notice it. Perhaps technology has made us less patient even as it makes it easier to act instantly on our impulse to share what we’ve written. Whatever the reason, most of the advice I’ve doled out in the last couple of weeks can be boiled down to this—“slow down!”
I remember completing my first manuscript. It was a spectacular feeling. As you type your last words you can’t imagine any better feeling. But there ARE better feelings to come—like the feeling of signing with an agent, and the feeling of inking your name on a publishing contract. If you rush to take a newly minted manuscript to market you will not get to feel those bigger highs. You may turn your beloved tome (the one you’ve poured your heart and months or years of your life into) into nothing more than a pile of waste-paper.
Here are a few things to remember in your heady rush to share what you’ve written:
1) If your manuscript is not done agents don’t want to hear about it. You’d think this would go without saying. You’d be wrong. Just last week someone asked about querying an unfinished manuscript in an on-line forum. Fact: getting an agent is a long shot—as in single-digit percentage long shot. Why would an agent who receives hundreds of query letters a week EVER ask to see an incomplete manuscript? Even if the premise is brilliant there is no guarantee—until the book is done and the agent can read it—that the execution will live up to it. “Ah,” you say, “but the agent won’t know my book isn’t finished. Querying takes a while and while my letter is sitting on all those laptops I’ll wrap up the writing and editing.”
ACK! If you were here I would stab you with my letter opener (yes, I still have one.). First off, it is not uncommon to get a quick response to a gripping query pitching a concept that seems highly saleable. Second ...
2) The first time you think you are done with your book you are SO NOT DONE! In fact, the second time you think you are “done” you probably aren’t either. It’s not just YOU, it’s every debut writer. I could have sworn my first manuscript was done after I’d edited it twice and received feedback from a couple of beta readers. Boy was I wrong. It took three additional critique partner reviews, the removal of several sub-plots and the clipping of over 30,000 words (yeah that’s right 30k+) before I was actually done. In this market—with publishing in flux and publishers feeling risk adverse—your manuscript had better be spit-shined and nearly flawless before anyone who matters has a look at it. Every time you send out your manuscript prematurely you are wasting an agent name from your list.
“But,” you say, “I thought my agent would offer editorial suggestions and, eventually, the editor at my publishing house will as well.” Very true (notice how I am putting the letter opener back in the pencil cup). When you sign with an agent you are often standing on the tip of the revisions iceberg. But cutting corners in your personal edits on the theory you can make all the improvements at once is a mistake. You can’t get to the next round of edits without this one. Editing is a part of writing—often the biggest part. Your attitude towards it needs to be “early and often.”
When you finally have your manuscript edited to perfection, you are set to query. But again, hold your horses ...
3) Easing into the query process gives you the best chance of querying successfully. Remember how you thought you were done with your manuscript and you weren’t (see last point)? Well, chances are when you mail/email those first query letters out you’ll discover your letter isn’t ready either. There is really only one way to gauge whether your query letter is in good shape—see if it gets requests. If your letter isn’t up to the job it is better to find that out after you’ve sent twenty letters than two hundred. Send a couple of ten-letter trial batches out to a mix of agents from your A & B lists. Wait until you’ve got responses (or 2-3 weeks have passed at which point you count the non-responders as “not interested”) and if your rate-of-request isn’t in the 10% to 20% range revise your query. Repeat. The time to send out query letters as quickly as your mouse-hand can click is once your letter is topping the 20% request-rate mark.
You are going to meet with a lot of rejection on the way to being agented and/or published. Everybody does. If rejection makes you impatient, you stand a good chance of selling yourself and your manuscript short. Remind yourself again and again ...
4) How quickly people can read your book is NOT the ONLY goal to consider. As writers we want an audience. As writers with completed, polished manuscripts we want an audience NOW (now, now, now! do you hear me?). After months of editing and weeks (or months) of querying nearly every writer has the following thought: “I don’t care who publishes my book or how many people read it, I just want somebody other than my mother to see it.” Before the rise of self-publishing this thought wasn’t particularly dangerous because, unless you were going the vanity route, there was no easy way to just “get the book out there.” Now you (the writer) need to impose your own cooling off period and make certain you understand your personal goals for your book. Ask yourself, HOW BIG do you want your audience to be? Will you be content if two-dozen people read your book in the first year? If two hundred people do? How about two thousand? Ten thousand?
If you want thousands of people to read your book then you probably want to pursue the sometimes glacially slow agent-to-major-publisher route. Now before everyone attacks me, I am not saying that self-published or small-press published books can’t reach thousands of people, I am just saying the odds are longer. If you rush to self-publish or publish with a small press and then are disappointed with the number of readers your book gets, there isn’t much you can do. You can “start over” and try for an agent and a deal with one of the big 6, but you will need a new manuscript to do that.
Let’s say you do decide to self-publish ...
5) Professional looking self-published books take time. You can decide to self-publish your book today and have it available on the internet tomorrow, but chances are it wouldn’t be well presented. Nor well promoted. If you are going to do everything yourself—editing, cover-design, layout, promotion, advertising—you are going to need a plan, and good plans take time. You will also want to invest time in the pre-publication process (design, editing) to maximize you chances of success.
Getting back to Ecclesiastes (I do like things tidy) people run races to WIN. The ultimate prize in writing is a published book with a significant fan-base—significant enough that you have pecuniary reasons for writing your next book. It takes slow, deliberative thought and action to reach that goal. This is a marathon, not a sprint. Behave accordingly.
Sophie Perinot is an author with Penguin’s New American Library (NAL). Her debut novel, The Sister Queens, is on sale now at bookstores (brick-and-mortar and virtual) everywhere. You can connect with Sophie at http://www.sophieperinot.com/, on Facebook, or on Twitter.