Publishing is a strange industry. When you’re a new author trying to break in, it all seems infinitely glamorous. You dream of six-figure deals, book tours and bestseller lists, maybe even appearing on the red carpet. When you start out on that journey — as in, when you start writing your first book — you’re in complete control. You are the only person who can write the book, just as you’re the only one to blame if it doesn’t get written.
Enjoy that while you can. Every stage ahead of you involves losing some of that control. Let me walk you through it.
The Querying Writer
Once the manuscript is finished, writers who want to pursue the traditional publishing dream must take the next step, which is to secure literary representation, i.e., find an agent. This is also where you must cede a little bit of control. Sure, you can decide which agents and agencies to query, but the decision to represent your work will be made by someone else.
The querying writer does not control:
- Agency guidelines concerning when and how an agent may be queried. Your dream agent may be closed to queries when you’re finally ready to send one. Or, they no longer represent the age category or genre of your book. Writers who think the rules don’t apply to them are often the first to see a rejection.
- How long it takes the agent to respond. Agent response times are usually measured in months, not days or weeks. Some agents have a “no response means no” policy, meaning that you won’t generally get a reply unless the agent is interested.
- An offer of representation. This is up to the agent. Although the writer certainly plays a part (i.e. writing the manuscript and query), much of it may be determined by external forces: the fullness of the agent’s client list, whether or not she already represents similar work, and that ever-frustrating consideration of market demand.
The Agented Author
The writer who manages to land an agent has taken an important step toward publication. Many aspiring authors won’t reach this milestone, so it should be celebrated. Especially because the author now must begin to give up some control of the manuscript. Don’t be fooled by the word client: this is a partnership at best. The agent still calls a lot of the shots, including:
- Whether and how to revise the manuscript before it goes out to editors (i.e. on submission). Some agents are not editorial; they expect the work to be submission-ready when it reaches them. Most agents, however, work with their clients to improve the manuscript before sending it out.
- When the manuscript goes out on submission. Taking a manuscript out on sub takes a non-zero amount of work for an agent who likely has many clients. Some of them may already be on submission, or may be in line in front of you with similar work. Some agents won’t send a project out over the summer. When I signed with my first agent in March 2014, both situations applied, so I didn’t go out on submission until September. Those were six long months, let me tell you.
- Imprints and editors to be included. Most decisions about the submission itself — such as the houses/editors to include and how to approach them — are within the agent’s purview. The client might be asked for input as the agent builds a submission list. More often, the agent simply informs the client about where he/she sends the work.
The Author on Submission
Few things mess with an author’s head as much as going out on submission. This period, more than any, is when the author seems to have the least control. It’s especially hard because your dreams feel so close. Yet standing in your way are a great many obstacles, most of which you’re powerless to change:
- Editor subjectivity. A surprisingly small number of acquisitions editors exert their personal tastes on the broad publishing market. Maybe you wrote a thriller about a dog-loving detective, but the editor prefers cats. Maybe your space opera has faster-than-light travel but the editor doesn’t believe in it. “It didn’t grab me” is the death-knell for so many books on submission.
- Market forces. The sales and marketing teams have a lot of influence over acquisitions. They often assign your book to a broad category like “dark dystopian with female lead.” All kinds of factors — from election results to blockbuster films to Amazon search algorithms — affect how dark dystopians with female leads are doing right now. You control none of these, but they make or break your book’s chances. Just ask anyone who’s written a vampire book recently.
- The long wait. Most agented submissions take months to get a response. One reason for that is simply the fact that editors are busy people. Last year my editor at Harper Voyager, David Pomerico, edited 24 novels and read 300 submissions. If your project gains any traction, there will be second reads, editorial meetings, and pub board meetings. All of this takes time, and there’s nothing you can do to make it go faster. This is what gave rise to the old adage in publishing: if you need to know right now, the answer is no.
The Soon-to-be Debut Author
When you’re an aspiring author, every stage that lies ahead seems like the promised land. Yet even if you make it through the gauntlet of queries and submissions to get a book deal, you’ll quickly find that this involves ceding a LOT of control to others. Your book no longer belongs to you, but to an entire team of editors, designers, publicists, and salespeople. Generally speaking, you control what’s on the inside of the book, but the publisher dictates everything else. That includes:
- The cover. You might be asked for concepts or suggestions. You may have the opportunity to comment on the cover before it’s finalized. The ultimate decision, however, rests with the publisher.
- The blurb. Most authors don’t write the cover copy, which is the blurb that goes on the back of a paperback or the inside cover of a jacketed hardcover. Why? Because it’s marketing.
- The format. Your book may release in hardcover, trade paperback, mass market paperback. It’s usually not dictated by the contract, so you have little say over this.
- The price. This affects your royalties for every sale (under most agreements), but it’s set by the publisher, not you. If it’s too low, you’ll have trouble earning back the advance. If it’s too high, readers will complain and give it one-star reviews.
The Published Author
You did it! You’re published! It’s all cupcakes and rainbows from here on out. Do you believe me?
Oh, my sweet summer child.
Seeing your book published is a momentous occasion for every author. For most, it’s a dream come true. Yet it also marks an important transition point: a published book no longer belongs to the author, but to the world. Indeed, it’s the rest of the world that largely dictates the fate of a book after publication. You, as the author, will have a glorious day or week when your book releases. Since you can no longer change its content, you’ll begin obsessing about how others see the book, as measured in three things over which you have little control.
- Sales. The overall sales trajectory of a book is mainly determined 1-2 years before its release by the size, nature, and commitment of the publisher behind it. A book sold to a major publisher for a significant advance will receive the lion’s share of marketing and promotion efforts. A book sold to a small publisher (or a large publisher not willing to invest) will not enjoy those resources. Granted, an author who hustles at book promotion & marketing can certainly influence sales, but probably only by 10%. The rest is out of our hands.
- Reviews. Once a book is published, there’s little an author can do about reviews, other than try to obtain them. How your book is received by both media and everyday readers, well… that’s up to them. Some people will love the book. Some people will hate it. Many will be indifferent. You have no control over reviews, and you probably shouldn’t even read them.
- Awards. For about two years following your book’s publication, it will be eligible for numerous awards. Best Novel awards. Best Debut awards. Top Five and Top Ten lists. Best New Writer awards. By their very nature, awards are competitive. Awarded to a select few. Increasingly, in our modern world, awards are also battlegrounds for political statements by groups with opposing views. In other words, you have zero control on whether your book is nominated for (or wins) any awards.
This is a tough industry, and the further you get, the less it seems to be within your control. Accept that and go on with your life. Focus on the things you CAN control. You’ll be much happier for it.
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