Justine Larbalestier is answering writing questions all month on her blog? She’s already tackled POV, getting ideas, what to do when you’re stuck, and, in a notable departure from her edict not to answer industry questions, how to get an agent. Head on over there and check it out! Ask a question yourself!
When I first started writing, I knew absolutely no one and nothing about this industry. I knew no writers and the only person I knew in publishing was a friend of a former college roommate who was an assistant in reference non fiction at Penguin. (The roommate kept trying to get us to talk to each other, but we were both quite rightly thinking “What’s the point?” since all she could say to me was “I think you should try getting an agent.”
Nothing bugs me more than the pervasive myth that it’s all some big secret that published authors, agents, and publishers are colluding to keep from unpublished authors. I knew absolutely nothing, but I read a copy of Writer’s Market cover to cover and subscribed to free online writing newsletters (this was before there were blogs, when there were barely Yahoo loops). When I had finished a book, I spent $100 (an enormous sum for me at the time) joined RWA and my local chapter and attended meetings religiously.
And I learned how it worked. I learned the all important maxim, “Money flows toward the writer.” I learned the difference between a vanity press and a real publisher. I learned how to tell a good agent from a bad agent. I learned that you weren’t going to wake up tomorrow and be handed $750,000, like the newspapers brag of Stephenie Meyer receiving for her first novel. I learned that even once you got an agent and sold a book, you were only going to receive your advances in tiny dribs and drabs over a period of months or even years. I learned there was this service called Publisher’s Marketplace, and if you signed up for their newsletter, they sent you publishing news every single day and, once a week, they sent you a list of books that had actually been sold, and by whom, and to whom, and for how much. (Big mystery! Ha!) I learned about writing and publishing for a year before I ever tried to submit anything.
And I met writers. I met amazing, talented writers at my local RWA chapter. People who’d been in the business for decades, like Virginia Henley. People whose careers were just starting to take off, like Susan Kearney and Julie Leto. People who had just gotten their first book deal, like Roxanne St. Claire. And people like me — people who had a manuscript or two under their belt and were still trying to break in. One of those people, C.L. WIlson, is now a New York Times bestselling author. (How cool is that?) And you know what? Two of these writers recommended me to their editors. Neither editor bought anything. Knowing someone does not make a difference. It’s the work that sells.
Eight years later, things are easier for the beginning writer looking for information. There are hundreds upon hundreds of websites out there, hundreds upon hundreds of career writers (like Justine and me) who for free, give out advice about writing and publishing (or links to advice about same) on their websites. There are websites like Preditors and Editors, heaps of blogs by agents and editors and publishing watchdogs like Writer Beware. There are dozens upon dozens of Yahoo Loops for writers in different genres, and genre-specific support forums like Verla Kay’s Blue Board (for children’s books), both filled with published authors who are just bursting with advice and assistance for the young writer. There are websites like Show Me the Money and Tobias Buckell’s surveys that track how much authors are really making (Hint: It ain’t $750,000). There are agent searching sites like Agent Query that will help you find agents who handle the kind of book you’re writing, and Publisher’s Marketplace is stronger than ever. I still subscribe, only now I have the paid subscription, which means I can access an enormous database of sales and editor/agent/author profiles. And every single thing that I just mentioned, with the exception of the paid subscription to PM (you can still get the free one), is absolutely free, right here on the web. Heck, in most cases, you don’t even have to send out paper queries with SASEs anymore! I queried my agent, sent her my manuscript, and have sold six books without having to print a single thing out. You know when I go to the PO? When I return copyedits, page proofs, or send out prizes for things I give away on my blog. (Must get at that.) And you want to get to know writers? Here we are! I’ve met a ton of talented, savvy new writers online. Some now have books coming out while others are still waiting for their big break. One of these writers I recommended to my agent. She passed, and the writer signed with someone else who promptly sold her book — off a cold query. You don’t need to know anyone.
All of which is to say that there’s pretty much no excuse for ignorance. The info is out there, and it’s free. The people who say it’s all some big mystery aren’t trying very hard. It’s like they want a quick fix. Spend a few Sunday afternoons perusing the web. Google some of those terms I listed in the previous paragraph, like “Brenda Hiatt’s Show Me the Money” or “Writer Beware” or “Verla Kay Blue Board.” People who become lawyers and veterinarians and carpenters and pastry chefs spend time training for their profession. Spend some time. We don’t even have to go to school or get licensed to do our job. But that doesn’t mean we don’t need to study for it.
I know I’m preaching to the choir when I say things like this to the writers who visit this blog. You’re already reading a blog post about writing advice.